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Healthy Food Doesn’t Guarantee a Healthy Child

Healthy Food Healthy Child

I have been thinking about the irony of childhood nutrition lately. To me, the irony is the myth that everything hinges on eating the right food–good, healthy, clean food. As I embark on several trips to spread my philosophy about childhood nutrition over the next several weeks and as I consider the state of the Kraft Singles affair, I felt compelled to share my thoughts on putting food in its place. Because, right now, we have allowed food to get the best of us. And when it comes to kids and nutrition, food isn’t the only focus, or the only answer. Read on.

The only thing Janine wanted to accomplish during the day was to get healthy food into her three young children. If she succeeded, it was a good day. The reality was she had only a few of those good days. More often than not, Janine dealt with food refusal, changing food preferences, and unhealthy food requests. Like many moms, Janine worried about her kids’ eating, their health, their weight, and their eating habits. Every night she went to be thinking about how the next day would be different–and how she would get her kids to eat better.

In the 21st century, childhood medical challenges like food allergies, learning differences and childhood obesity are on the rise, and many of these conditions have a nutrition-related component. Meanwhile, we are told ad nauseam about how badly American children are eating and how their health is suffering. Naturally, parents are on the hunt for a solution to the bad eating, terrible health dilemma– and many are looking to food for the answer.

The perfect solution to all of these food and eating problems would seem to be some sort of food modification: eat this, but don’t eat that; eat less or eat more; eat healthier food or stay away from unhealthy foods; and on and on.

The Food Solution

The problem with this food solution is that it focuses on what we eat (or don’t, or shouldn’t, or wouldn’t), leading to the belief that getting food right is the answer.

Pitting food against food, ingredient against ingredient, these nutrition directives encourage us to avoid the bad food and eat the healthy stuff. Not a terrible idea, entirely. But these idealistic mantras imply something else: that we are bad if we eat bad food, or at least, something bad will happen to us if we do. Alternatively, if we eat healthy, we will be healthy.

If you’re a parent, the stakes are even higher: if your child eats badly, then you may be failing in the ‘raising a healthy kid’ department.

This notion that perfect food means perfect eating which results in perfect health—physically, mentally and emotionally– is silly, and keeps parents from raising the healthy kids they want.

Healthy food simply doesn’t guarantee a healthy child.

There’s More to Childhood Nutrition

What if getting the right food into your child is only part of the task? Would you be surprised if I told you that how you feed your child—the routine you use, the timing of meals and snacks, and the conversation you have at the table—is just as important as your food selection?

Would you be relieved to know that perfect, healthy food may not be the only answer? In fact, I believe that a little bit of unhealthy food actually helps outline a healthy food balance and provides opportunities to learn how to navigate our complicated food environment.

Your child’s developmental stage is another piece of the nutrition puzzle. Knowing what to expect at each stage—such as during toddlerhood when kids can be picky or the teen years when independence with food selection and risk-taking are at an all-time high—can help you handle the normal and expected ups and downs with nutrition.

All three of these areas—food, feeding and child development—are what give you the best odds for raising a healthy child.

Why Food Alone Fails

When eating healthy food is the ultimate goal, the stakes run high for getting your child to eat. Research shows that many of the tactics parents use to get their child to eat healthy food don’t always work, and may even be counter-productive.

For example, when you push a picky eater to eat better, or more food, he may push back and not eat well at all. Or he may comply and eat more than he needs.

When you remove all sweets and tasty foods from the home in an effort to curtail unhealthy eating, it may not result in weight loss, better eating, or satisfaction. In fact, it may lead to the opposite—ambivalence toward healthy food, and a greater focus on sweets. And, removing all “bad” food from the home may result in negative behaviors such as sneaking desired foods outside of the home, or eating when bored or for emotional reasons.

And one of my personal pet peeves– sneaking vegetables into meals without telling your child—an act that may erode the fundamental trust your child has in you, may affect his food choice and eating. 

Even with good intentions, these food-oriented solutions can have negative side effects, catching parents by surprise, leaving them frustrated, and on the lookout for more food fixes. This can perpetuate the widespread notion that somehow another magical food (or sneaky strategy) is the answer!

Food is important, but it’s only a piece of the childhood nutrition puzzle.

Take a Modern Approach to Childhood Nutrition

Modern nutrition and feeding today means a broader perspective, and a time for a shift in our thinking: from getting healthy food into kids to a more comprehensive feeding strategy. Perhaps then, parents won’t feel so frustrated, confused and guilty when their child rejects broccoli, panhandles for sweets, or forages for unhealthy food at the neighbor’s house.

What children are fed, how it’s done, and understanding why children behave the way they do around food and eating is the broader perspective parents need for childhood nutrition in the 21st century. These three components are equally important to raising healthy kids and when emphasized equally, can be life and health changing, for parent and child.

 So tell me, are you ready to put food in its place?

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  1. JIll, we can all use a healhty dose of balance and variety! Growing up in another country, junk foods were non-issue because there were SO MUCH great variety cooked in the kitchen and enjoyed everyday. The less we are hinged on “bad” food and “good” food, the more parents are empowered and rely less on simplistic claims/endorsement on food packages. All foods fit in a healthy lifestyle!

  2. This was so well written and touches on so many aspects that are just fantastic! As a nutrition student we’ve spent some time touching on topics where nowadays food is deemed either “good” or “bad”, but food is not something that should have a moral label attached to it. It’s just food. There’s no dichotomies! As far as childhood nutririon I feel like you’ve hit the nail on the head and brought up some great points. There’s so much more that goes into how to help children achieve healthy lives than just the “right” food!

  3. This is so great! As an RD and mother? I do worry about finding a balance. I feel guilty about feeding quick and easy meals sometimes.

    1. I hear you! Don’t forget that balance can be achieved over the course of a week or two, not just a single day…

  4. Wow Jill. Well said! I found myself clapping my hands after reading this post! i can’t wait to share with my readers—- your are so right on so many levels here. It’s not just about the food– its the whole kit and kaboodle that comes along with feeding kids!