I wrote recently about why I give my daughter Sally unrestricted access to her Halloween candy, and that generated some interesting discussion as people reminisced about their own childhoods or explained their own parenting decisions. But one comment, left by a reader named Brandy, got me thinking about teaching children about healthy eating. Brandy offered this concern:
I guess I am struggling with this because of my own past. I was brought up with full access to junk food. My Halloween candy was never taken from me. There were literally zero restrictions in regards to junk food in my house growing up. To this day, I have very little control over my impulses to eat junk. Is this truly just a case of me being an outlier on the continuum or am I missing something? I see how this could work in theory, but I guess I am failing to see how it works in practice.
I think it’s important to remember that Halloween only happens once a year. Allowing a child a whole basket of candy for themselves once a year is not the same thing as giving them full access to junk food every day of the year. Part of the fun of Halloween is the novelty, and in the grand scheme of things, allowing a child to eat a stash of Halloween candy isn’t going to have some huge impact on her health. Further, if the child eats candy until she has a stomach ache, or eats the whole stash all at once and later regrets it, she will hopefully have learned something.
But I don’t just want to talk about Halloween, because Brandy brings up something important, and that’s how to teach children healthy eating habits in general.
I grew up in a family where food was very tightly controlled. If you were hungry between meals, too bad, and if you didn’t want to finish the food on your plate because you were full, too bad. The result was that, for me, eating was completely disconnected from whether or not I was hungry. Further, when I left home for college and suddenly had full access to junk food, I went a little crazy. It has taken me years to learn to control my impulse to eat junk food, and while I’m fairly happy with where I am now I really wish I’d learned healthier eating habits and a healthier orientation towards food earlier.
Today, I let my two children eat whenever they want, and I never force them to eat just because it’s mealtime. Further, my children have almost completely full access to whatever food is in the house. They are both allowed to get into the fridge at any time for food, and both do so without batting an eye. And yes, they’re only four and one. Now to be clear, I’m not saying this as some sort of prescription. I have a friend whose child has all sorts of food allergies, and whose diet has to be watched carefully, and some children have things like diabetes or eating disorders. All I’m saying is that this is what I do with my children, and so far it has been working wonderfully.
But how, you ask? Let me explain.
First, I encourage Sally and Bobby to listen to their bodies and eat when they are hungry and not when they are not. If Sally is hungry, I let her choose a snack. She usually opens the fridge and scans its contents and then picks something. Bobby does the same, though he needs more help than Sally. I try to make sure to always have plenty of snacks that don’t take much preparation on hand. If I see a problem or have a concern, I step in, and there are a few items that are more restricted (ice cream, for instance), but in general this is very hands off.
We still have regular mealtimes, but if Sally or Bobby aren’t hungry, I don’t require them to eat anything. If it’s mealtime and they want something different to eat from what is being served for dinner, I often acquiesce, though this may depend on things like preparation time and how willing I feel in that moment to go to the extra effort. I never require them to finish everything on their plates, though I do teach them about not wasting food. I don’t force them to try things they don’t want to try, though I do tell them that “you won’t know if you like it till you try it,” and they are usually receptive.
Next, I limit the amount of junk food I bring into the house and make sure we also have plenty of healthy food on hand. If Sally is hungry and looks around to find something to eat, she’s more likely to find food like yogurt, oranges, pitas, and cheese than she is to find junk food. In fact, most days there is no junk food at all in the house, whether that’s cookies or candy or ice cream or chips. None. Combined with this, I work hard to make sure that the food we do have on hand isn’t just healthy but is also tasty and appealing. I find this is healthier for the entire family.
Of course, this does not mean we never have junk food in the house. I grew up without junk food, and I looked wistfully at junk food every time we went shopping and then binged on it once I finally had access in college. So I let Sally pick out one small item for herself every time we go shopping. Her choices vary, and aren’t always even junk food: a box of gummies, a container of raspberries, a box of pop-tarts. I find this combination of healthy options and regular personal choice strikes a good balance.
Third, even though Sally is only four I have already talked with her quite a bit about healthy eating and about establishing healthy approaches toward food. If we have ice cream in the house (which we rarely do) and Sally asks for some, I tell her she needs to eat something “healthy” first. We have a chart of healthy food on our wall, and she likes to study it and pick something out. I’ve explained that junk food may taste good, but it’s not very good for our “body machines.” I tell her that “healthy” food will help her grow strong and will make her body feel good. We’ve also read numerous library books about the human body, food, and health.
I think sometimes people assume that children need to be older before discussing topics like this, and as a result they don’t try it earlier even though the kid may actually be ready long before they realize. And you know what? I also find that kids respond to adult expectations about what they are or are not capable of. Again, this isn’t to say there aren’t times when kids aren’t quite ready for things, and it’s also the case that every child is different. Still, I think we need to always be ready to question or challenge our preconceived ideas about what children are or are not ready for.
This combination of full access, healthy options, and discussion is working well for us. I’m not saying that any of this is some sort of universal that will work for every child or every family, and I can’t even say that it’s what we’ll always do. Right now, though, this approach to food, as radical as it may sound, is how we roll.