When my daughter was in preschool, her definition of “healthy food” was “you know food–not bugs or dirt.” To date, it’s still one of my favorites definitions, completely untarnished by idealogy, marketing or hang-ups.
If you’re like most parents, you want your kids to grow up to be healthy adults who enjoy a variety of nutritious foods, are able to eat what they need, stop when they are full and feel good about the process. Moms tend to feel immense pressure to ensure their kids do right with food.
But, although there are definitely some things kids must learn from you to do well with eating, you don’t need to give your little kids nutrition lessons. In this 3-part series you’ll discover:
- Why traditional nutrition education is not effective for young kids and can actually do harm.
- How kids best learn about food and eating.
- What is most important to teach kids at each stage of childhood from infancy through early elementary.
- Practical ideas for education in home or school.
The main problem with traditional nutrition education is that it’s very cognitive and abstract. It’s simply not how young children learn best, misses foundational skills, and interferes with what they do need to learn.
Most nutrition education is abstract. “Get enough protein” is an abstract concept. “Too much candy” and “too much fat” is an abstract concept. “Carrots are good for you” is an abstract concept. And yet these kinds of lessons are frequently geared at young kids.
For the youngest children, even “listen to your tummy” or “what is your tummy telling you?” can be too abstract and tries to externalize an intuitive skill.
When my son was freshly potty trained I was determined to prevent all accidents. So I was constantly asking him if he had to go potty. Like most kids, his answer was always NO. So I tried different tactics to help him think harder about it because I was sure that was what was needed. “Feel your bladder…is it full?” “What does your bladder say?”
I did this so much he eventually started implicating his bladder for all sorts of things. “Mommy tomorrow my favorite color will be blue!” How did he know? “My bladder told me.”
Everything he did he connected to his bladder’s advice. Although this didn’t actually hurt anything, it is an example of how abstract explanations are not helpful for small children.
Not only is traditional nutrition education ineffective, it actually has potential to do harm. Here are three reasons:
- It interferes with their natural intuitive eating skills and self-regulation. Many adults struggle with feeling out of control around certain foods. Or with ‘portion control. Little kids do not have that struggle. They eat as much as they need to feel satisfied and are DONE. Done with a capital D. No guilt. No shame. No internal struggle and hand wringing. They just move on. That’s a good thing. Even for adults, being too restrained and careful with eating tends to lead to overeating later. It’s a horrible binge-restrict-binge cycle and is often triggered by putting too much emphasis on popular “oughts” and “shoulds” about how we should eat.
- It makes nutritious food a chore. When adults make such a big deal of eating vegetables, it turns it into a job, not something to look forward to or enjoy and eat to satisfaction. In fact, research shows that talking about how healthy a food is actually undermines eating of said food. Nobody has to talk up dinner rolls or candy. Because they taste good. Kids get the message that vegetables are undesirable if we serve them with a side of pressure. Why else would parents work so hard if a food was actually enjoyable?
- Young children must first learn food acceptance before they can master high level nutrition lessons. Good vs. Bad food categorization flips that around and interferes with their developing a general accepting attitude toward new foods.
Most children can recite a list of foods they’ve been taught are healthy, but it doesn’t really impact their actual eating or preference. That’s because children eat primarily by taste and are highly tuned in to their self-regulatory signals. They won’t eat more than they are hungry for unless we’ve inadvertently taught them to do so.
So if not abstract nutrition concepts and healthy vs. unhealthy, what do kids need to learn? Tune in, in April, to learn the type of things young kids must learn to do well with food and eating at each stage of development. (Hint: kids do their best learning about food through experience, exposure, and exploration.)