These days, there is a huge push to teach children what a healthy diet consists of. In the US, the government 'My Plate' scheme has a message branded as 'Go, Slow & Whoa' which encourages kids to think about the nutritional content of food when making eating choices. In the UK, The government's Change4Life campaign has a strong voice in schools, especially with its current anti-sugar agenda.
I am all for getting our kids eating well - helping children enjoy food is what I'm about. However, some of these messages aimed at children concern me.
The way certain foods are demonised (Change4Life talks about "the dangers of lurking sugar") is just plain anxiety-provoking and sensationalist. I worry that if children are given messages about certain foods being 'dangerous', this will make them feel anxious about food, not positive about it!
I strongly believe *soap-box please* that young children should not have to feel a sense of responsibility for the content of their diet. This is our job as parents. We are the ones who should be making it our business to put decent food on the table, it's just not for the children to worry about.
With this sense of responsibility comes shame and guilt.... I heard of a seven year old school girl who was made to pour her apple juice (packed by her parents, presumably) down the sink because it did not comply with her school's 'low sugar' drinks guidelines. This must have been really humiliating for her and is just so unfair. She hadn't made the choice to buy the drink - AND (sorry for the shouty capitals, but this makes me really angry) I would argue that the negative emotional experience of the sink-pouring incident was worse for that child's overall well-being (and relationship with food) than having a little fructose with her sandwiches that day.
In a nutshell, I don't believe children should feel burdened with the job of making sure their diet is good for them. That's for us, the parents. It's for the school kitchen providing the lunch, it's for the day-care facility. In other words, it's for the ADULTS.
Okay, so in my ideal world where children don't have to worry about the content of their lunch boxes, how are we going to raise them to be great eaters with the ability to put balanced food on their kids' plates when they grow up? It might sound like I'm anti food-education; I'm not. I'm anti scare-mongering. It's great to teach children about food and the things we need for our bodies to work well, but this can be done with a light touch.
Research shows that the thing most likely to induce a child to eat a particular fruit or vegetable is familiarity with that fruit or vegetable. I am 100% behind schools helping children become familiar with a wide range of foods that they may not come across at home. It's great to teach children about fresh produce, especially if it involves gardening and engaging with the journey from field to fork. Because it needs to be about enjoyment not fear. We know from Swiss research that children's enjoyment of eating is a really important factor in their relationship with food. Equally, we know that anxiety about eating is implicated in picky eating. By frightening children with a list of 'don't do this' and 'never eat that' are we fostering enjoyment or anxiety?
Kids in the kitchen
I'm a huge fan of cooking in schools - knowing how to cook, menu plan and budget for meals are essential life skills. If cooking has a really high profile in the curriculum, the messages about nutrition and balance can be communicated easily and in context. Children can have fun exploring foods and having a go at cooking from a really young age. However, nutrition is a complex field - too complex for young children to understand. Simplifying concepts like the many different sources of sugar, the complicated interplay between energy used and sugars taken on (and the percentage of total energy derived from sugars) down to SUGAR IS BAD is just not helpful. Instead, children should learn to love and engage with food without having to feel worried about how good for them, or likely to 'make them fat' it is.
I talk and write a lot about self-regulation. It's at the heart of a positive relationship with food. Put simply, self-regulation is all about children eating because of their bodies' cues rather than for external reasons. If children are worrying about the nutritional content of their food, this could interfere with self-regulation. A healthy attitude towards nutrition is not one that involves obsessing about what is eaten. A healthy attitude is all about balance and enjoyment of food.
Of course it is important that children understand the rudiments of a balanced diet, but surely that can be conveyed without reference to their own eating and without scaring the pants off them?? My cousin (aged 14 at the time) came home to tell her mum (my auntie) that she couldn't eat avocados any more because they are 'fatty'. Telling teenage girls to avoid fat is like juggling with a hand grenade. We need to be so careful with how young people relate to food and mindful of the minefield that is body image. And as for the nutritional content of avocados, all I can say is that when teachers teach about diet, they need to have access to ACCURATE resources and information.
What you can do at home
If, like me, you want your children to embark upon adulthood understanding what constitutes a balanced diet (and how to prepare it) but you don't want to mess with their relationship with food along the way, here are some things to bear in mind:
1) Make food-education incidental.
By this, I mean chat about food as you shop and as you cook. As you pay for your milk, tell your child how it's full of calcium that helps build bones. As you slice carrots for the evening meal, enjoy a taste together and talk about whether or not carrots can really make you see in the dark...
2)Teach about nutrition AWAY from the table
Look at books about how the body works with your child. Chat about why we need certain nutrients to be our healthiest selves. If your children already have a great relationship with food, sure, you can talk about nutrition as you eat. If they find meals hard though, information about why they should be eating this or that may be experienced as pressure (see 3 below).
3) Avoid using nutrition as a lever
As soon as children hear that they should eat up their greens because vegetables are good for them or will make them grow, they are experiencing pressure. And pressure makes eating worse (back to self-regulation again). Children should be making choices about whether to finish off those greens because of what their body is telling them, not because you've told them it will help the make the football team.
4) Don't demonise food
Things that are less than super healthy (crisps, chips/fries, sugary snacks - you know what I'm talking about) are fine now and then in the context of a balanced diet. Don't split food into the good guys and the bad guys. The language you use about food is really important and if you describe these foods as 'bad', 'naughty' 'fattening' etc. it puts a whole layer of moral and emotional bleughhhrr all over them.
5) Don't make less wholesome foods conditional
If 'treats' are given on the basis of what else has been eaten (or how a child has behaved) this sends a message that they are in another category all of their own and are to be aspired to. Once food and approval become confused, it can be pretty hard to untangle them. Read this post for more about how to give treats in an emotionally healthy way.
6) Let your children learn from experience
Instead of forbidding food that you perceive as bad for your child, share your thoughts and feelings about it with them then (sometimes !) let them make their own decisions and chat about it afterwards. I have written a post about the time I let my eight year old buy a terrifyingly huge, artificially coloured lolly that every fibre of my being wanted to tell her she couldn't have. She came to some really interesting conclusions.
7) Verbalise your meal-planning decisions
As you decide what to eat, talk out loud about the decision making processes. You could say, well, we had a pizza yesterday - let's try and plan something that we cook from scratch today. You can talk about how you've chosen brown rice because whole grains are great for our bodies. If you demonstrate that thinking about the nutritional content of your food is interesting and fun rather than driven by fear, this is the message your child will absorb.
8) Involve your kids in menu-planning
This works best for children who are already food-confident. If what you are having for dinner is an emotionally neutral topic for your child, get them to help you think about what you will eat that week. Show them that choosing what to eat is a combination of thinking about what you'll enjoy, experimenting with variety and being mindful of what your bodies need.
9) Eat a balanced diet.
Yep. This is the single most important thing you can do for a child. If your kids see you eating good food with a positive and guilt-free attitude, this will be the biggest influence of all over how they eat as adults when the content of their diet is entirely their concern.
10) Take the long view
If your (older) child has a phase of buying unhealthy snacks whenever they get the opportunity, that will have less of a negative impact on them than if they are subject to guilt-laden nutrition messages or are restricted, making them different from their peers. The urge to fit in (and rebelling a bit too) is an essential part of growing up. Don't try to control everything that passes their lips - remember that what they have seen at home year in, year out is the biggest predictor of their adult behaviours and attitudes.