teaching your children about nutrition.

27 Feb

So I didn’t watch the Oscars. Sue me. I saw one of my good friends perform instead! It was awesome… I took some pictures, we’ll see if any turned out! And pretty much all I’ve done today is eat strawberries and pretend to do work (aka get nothing done). I decided to go with a hopefully-informative and possibly boring post today…

I alluded to a Developmental Psychology project I did last week. I managed to talk my whooole group into getting on the food&nutrition bandwagon and do a report on how we teach children about nutrition/influence their eating habits. Here are the main points we focused on…


Children who eat dinner with their family almost every day are 1.5 times more likely to consume the recommended 5 fruits and vegetables per day than children who eat with the family never, or rarely (Gilman, Rifas-Shiman, Frazier, Rockett, Camargo, Field, Berkey, and Colditz, 2000). This may be more of a function of increased opportunities for modeling healthy choices (as discussed below) or may be more focused on the meal itself. Similarly, introducing television at mealtimes can increase consumption of red meats and salty snacks Coon, Goldberg, Rogers & Tucker, 2001). It has actually been shown to decrease the amount eaten by 2-3 year olds during the particular meal, but increase their caloric consumption overall (Francis & Birch, 2006). In part this is because the television distracts from satiety signals and from the experience of eating.

Modeling good behavior

Multiple studies (such as one by Vereckeen & Maes, 2010) have been done finding significant correlations between the snack choices of parents and their children; whether this is a question of availability or modeling is up for some debate, but there’s no doubt that kids learn a lot from their parents, including food preferences. I know I probably gained some of my ridiculous love of all things bread from my equally carb-addicted mother… ;)

On the more negative side, one study also found a strong correlation between parents’ need to eat in response to stress and similar trends in their children. Parents who eat for emotional reasons model this behavior, and their children tend to do the same (Brown & Ogden, 2004).

Controlling Food Intake

Of course, setting food-rules is not an altogether negative thing; being entirely lenient and permissive in feeding style has been shown as correlated with an increased consumption of sweets and soft drinks (Vereecken, Legiest, De Bourdeaudhui, & Maes, 2009). But too much control can also have negative effects… Stringent food rules tend to be correlated with increased consumption of unhealthy foods, and force-feeding kids (i.e. making them clear their plate every time, or eat when they aren’t hungry) disrupts satiety signals and the child’s natural ability to calorically regulate. Using food as a reward can also tamper with the child’s relationship with food, and increase the child’s desire for the reward food (Sleddens, Kremers, De Vries & Thijs, 2010). It also adds an emotional component  makes eating seem like an action based on thought rather than a need to refuel our bodies.

Ultimately, I think this is the fundamental problem. Much of the way we learn about food as children emphasizes thinking about what we should eat, rather than listening to our body’s internal mechanisms that can help guide our consumption. We are told to eat everything on our plate, rather than the amount that makes us satisfied; we are told that we should be eating certain foods to influence our body shape (how many diet magazines are we exposed to, even at a young age?). This simultaneous disconnect and obsession with food seems to me to be a core reason for both the epidemic of obesity and eating disorders in modern society.

In general, teaching children about nutrition becomes a balancing act: finding a way to incorporate some rules, making healthy food available without necessarily creating “forbidden” foods, and hoping to foster a generally healthy outlook on eating as fuel for our bodies (in addition to being a pleasurable experience!).

Reading about all of this was extremely interesting for me… I think my parents mostly did things right, and I still had a somewhat complicated relationship with food at times, but I was mostly a healthy eater. I definitely remember eating spinach and feta salads as a middle-schooler when some of my friends still thought anything green was disgusting. Nowadays I’m still the vegetable enthusiast among many meat-and-potatoes-type friends. So they must have done something right. ;)

How were you taught about food? Or, if you’re a parent, how do you (intend to) teach your children about nutrition/food choices?

Anyways, sorry if this bored you to tears, I just thought it was interesting and I had fun reading/writing bits about it. :)

16 Responses to “teaching your children about nutrition.”

  1. movesnmunchies February 28, 2011 at 4:31 am #

    my parents ALWAYS made us eat together for dinner.. it was a must.. i def think it was great for us to bond as a family and to enjoy eating. i think what you wrote waas awesome! you really took a lot of time for this… i was surprised to learn about the kids having less than their 5 a day if they didnt eat with their family.. thats kind of random!

  2. Jess@HealthyExposures February 28, 2011 at 5:00 am #

    Not bored to tears…I think stuff like this is really interesting, too! I mean – we’re bound to become accustomed to what foods and stuff we’re introduced while we’re too young to make our own choices, you know? I don’t think I’ll be seeing a ten year old driving to the grocery store and doing her own grocery shopping! It wasn’t until I was more “on my own” that I started learning and paying more attention to how I ate, and I think had it not been for one class I randomly signed up for (“Plants and People,”) I don’t think I’d ever have even really given it a second thought!
    Growing up, I can’t say I was fed a junky diet, but looking at it I do think it was a relatively “typical” American diet. Chips, sweet fruit juices, fast food and candy all had their appearances. But my mom also did her best to make sure I was eating my fruit and vegetables. Even if I would kick and scream :P

  3. thehealthyapron February 28, 2011 at 5:35 am #

    My parents were mostly clear your plate kind of people. It did NOT help with my eating habits as I got older and made me ignore my hunger/satiety. At least I know NOW that I don’t want to be that way with my kids! I want them to have a normal relationship with food and I hope I can be a positive influence!

  4. Jess February 28, 2011 at 7:55 am #

    great post! growing up, i wasn’t taught too much outright- we ate together, and i was supposed to eat my veggies and not have too many cookies.

  5. kat February 28, 2011 at 9:47 am #

    Great post. My parents taught me the WRONG way to eat, thus leading to many food issues that I still battle. My mom has been on every diet out there, and being a single mom meant her diet was usually mine. in middle school I was drinking slimfast while other kids got hot lunch from the cafeteria. I had skinny cow ice cream while others had ice cream cones from rite aid. Its sad because I can see the influences my dad has on my younger bro and he just eats sugar like crazy. He had FOUR desserts on thanksgiving and no one said a thing. I don’t think parents realize their impacts sometimes…

  6. Casey February 28, 2011 at 11:49 am #

    My family didn’t have the best eating habits, but certainly not the worst. It wasn’t all natural and organic but it wasn’t fast food and take out 24/7 either. I come from a family of cooks, so homemade was always the way to go.

    In middle school my Mom and I went through the journey of learning more about food, nutrition, and exercise and we kind of transformed the families eating habits and way of thinking together.

    Now my Mom and I are health nerds and my Dad and brother were kind of force into it ;) They love it though

  7. runyogarepeat February 28, 2011 at 1:28 pm #

    Loved this info! We talked about this in my nutrition life-cycle class, and we learned that if kids have obese parents, they are up to 13X more likely to be obese! Kids need to learn good nutrition! I always ate dinner with my family, and we still do when I’m at home. At my internship, I’m starting to write up nutrition “challenges” for kids to help them learn how they can make healthier choices.

  8. Tara February 28, 2011 at 3:18 pm #

    I found this post extremely interesting! I learned that my parents did it all wrong, but I turned out okay. We ate a lot of fast food growing up, at in front of the tv, never ate together, and we never ate particularly healthy food. They also wanted us to clean our plates and used it as a reward. Somehow I got into nutrition and saved myself, though I can’t say everyone else in my family is the same way. They’re getting better though. One step at a time!

    This makes me wonder what effect food advertisements have on kids. I’d like to look into that!

  9. whatkateiscooking February 28, 2011 at 5:07 pm #

    I think it’s SO important to teach kids about nutrition!! I wish I knew then what I know now…

  10. Stephanie February 28, 2011 at 5:09 pm #

    Not boring at all! I’m a huge cheerleader for family meals. My husband and I (no kids yet) always sit down at the table for a proper evening meal – no TV allowed.

    Another thing that helps kids eat healthier is just talking it up. I’m a teacher, and at the beginning of the year there was a lot of junk showing up in lunchboxes. I went on an overly-enthusiastic salespitch about fruits and veggies (including weekly tasting parties for the first few months of school and taking random photos of kids eating raw fruits and veggies during lunchtime) – and as of this week, every single child is now bringing raw fruits and veggies in their lunchbox. As adults we really have the opportunity to help children make good choices!

  11. Lee @ Fit Foodie Finds February 28, 2011 at 7:36 pm #

    I wish this post had a like button.

  12. Kristina February 28, 2011 at 8:11 pm #

    Wow this is funny-I just had this discussion with W. He NEVER had family dinners and I grew up with every night being one so now that we are on similar schedules I told him how important to me it is that we have family dinners and when we have kids that we ALWAYS eat together-at the table! I never ate on the couch until I met him-oh the bad habits he’s given me!

    • Nicole @ Of Cookies & Carrots February 28, 2011 at 10:52 pm #

      Well now you can counter him with data from peer-reviewed psychological journal articles? aren’t you excited? ;) haha.

  13. Wendy (Healthy Girl's Kitchen) March 1, 2011 at 4:01 am #

    I grew up in a home with a healthy family dinner every night. But I saw unhealthy behaviors in some of the adults around me and I modeled them. I also developed a food addiction at a very young age (or maybe had it from birth, who knows?). I love reading about all of the studies that you referred to. I’m fascinated by all of this, especially now having three children of my own. The only thing that I know to be true is that an individual’s relationship with food is very difficult to control.

  14. katshealthcorner March 1, 2011 at 8:39 pm #

    Nicole, I absolutely LOVE this post! :D

    Those are some crazy statistics! :D Though, I absolutely agree with your point on the effects with children and Family Mealtime. I personally really appreciate my meals with my family. It’s a time that I get to spend with my family to talk stuff over, here what their day was like, and just bond.

    “This simultaneous disconnect and obsession with food seems to me to be a core reason for both the epidemic of obesity and eating disorders in modern society.” <—What an interesting point you made! :)

    I agree. It is about balance. That is what I have learned. I think we have something to learn from little children. For the most part, they eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full. I think we should all become as little children in that respect — listen to our bodies.


  15. kissmybroccoli March 1, 2011 at 10:08 pm #

    Growing up, my family always ate dinner together at the dinnertable. Unfortunately, I did not grow up on a nutritious diet in the least. Our regular meals involved lots of processed sides, white breads and grains, and rarely ever any fresh produce. :(

    I feel lucky to have learned all that I have over the years and develop my own style of eating. I try to get my parents to make healthier choices, and sometimes I see my mom and sis trying, but my dad is as stubborn as a mule!

    If I ever have children (BIG emphasis on “if”) I hope to instill in them the knowledge of healthy eating and taking care of their bodies!

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