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Why Black and White Food Rules Don’t Work

Nearly every day I read something that vilifies food.

Apple juice. Sugar. Froot Loops. Fast food. Potatoes.

The list goes on.

Sometimes there’s real danger, but many times it’s an opinion that stops us in our tracks.

overwhelmed lady

Take chocolate milk, for example.

While it’s an easy nutrition no-no for some, I think it’s something worth looking into for the little details. Some foods do deserve their reputation, but many foods fall into the middle, neither totally good nor bad.

Black and White Thinking about Food

While we adults have the capacity to comprehend complicated information, when it comes to nutrition, we filter food concepts like children.

We use black and white food rules.

Children use black and white thinking to understand the world around them, helping them to simplify information for better understanding.

You can see the black and white lens being used almost everyday if you look for it.

Good food, bad food. Eat this, not that. The “warning!” food versus the food that will “save your life.”

Even “eat right” can motivate this thinking, especially when people know they’re not eating right.

While you hear words like “moderation and balance” tossed around, the tendency is to use this black and white lens, categorizing foods as good or bad.

For many, moderation and balance are too fuzzy to understand, which makes it harder to practice day to day.

You would think black and white thinking makes navigating nutrition easier, but it doesn’t.

When We Vilify Food 

While it seems easier to categorize foods as good or bad, for most parents I know and work with, this only complicates matters more.

“I heard I should stay away from potatoes because there’s too much sugar in them, but my kids love potatoes,” said one mom.

Another parent stated,

“I don’t give my kids any white flour, because white stuff is bad for you. Do you know how much white flour is out there?”

Yes, I do. And I know it will drive you crazy trying to hunt it down and get it out of your cabinets, let alone your kids’ lives.

The truth is, if you try hard enough, you can pick apart just about everything there is to eat. And when food gets the hammer, it makes life more difficult for parents (and kids).

Some of you will wonder how you will raise healthy kids without these absolutes, but I know you can.

Food Extremes Cause Fear

We live in a fear-based nutrition environment, and that’s partly why I wrote Fearless Feeding, to arm parents with nutrition knowledge and take the nonsense (and fear) out of feeding kids.

Fear produces negative feeding interactions between parents and their children. It undermines confident parenting and feeding, and interferes with common sense and good judgment, making feeding mistakes more likely.

Fear is paralyzing.

I know fear. You won’t see me jumping out of an airplane, bungy jumping, or standing atop a mountain without holding on.

No way.

Too much fear.

This is what happens to parents who fear they’ll make a mistake with food or talking about nutrition with their kids. They freeze—they avoid, hang on for dear life or “survive,” rather than exploring, investigating and learning.

And they rely on black and white food rules.

So if you’re afraid to eat this rather than that, or bad food has you scrambling for something else to serve your children, relax.

It’s not that absolute.

Food is Flexible

The truth is, food is forgiving and flexible. You don’t have to eat perfectly everyday (I sure don’t!) nor feed your children perfectly every day. There is room for overdoing it sometimes and under-doing it other times.

But you do need to pay attention. And use your fuzzy lens.

When you adopt a fuzzy lens, you have to pause, focus and look deeper. When it comes to nutrition, things are neither black nor white. They’re grey.

Lose The Guilt, Gain The KnowledgeFearless Feeding logo

It’s time to lose the guilt and fear, and gain confidence and knowledge with feeding kids.

If you don’t know about nutrition, then get schooled.

While you may think you can raise children by ignoring nutrition, “winging it,” or just reading the latest science reports, I know this will make your job harder.

You do need to know about nutrition and you need to know about feeding. The triad of food, parent-child interactions and child development—that’s the gist of successfully raising healthy kids.

If you read this blog, you know that targeting food balance, structure and appetite are some of the keys to feeding kids. Balancing foods that help your child grow and develop with foods he enjoys, aka the 90:10 Rule, is one tenet. Paying attention to timing and predictability of meals coupled with sensitivity to appetite will serve you (and your child) better than avoiding “bad” foods.

To learn more about nutrition and feeding kids, keep reading The Nourished Child (and pass it along!). And don’t miss out on our Fearless Feeding community on Facebook. I invite you to share your struggles, questions and successes…because everyone has them.

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  1. I totally agree! Kids are so intuitive in nature and they pick up on a parents feelings & energy towards food. By ‘losing the guilt’ I feel better and I also see my son enjoying meal time more as well. The last think I want as a parent is for my child to feel good or bad based on what he eats. I strive to create a flexible food environment, with the right amount of parental structure, and as a result I see my son choosing a variety of foods and following his hunger cues. Thanks for this excellent guidance Jill!

  2. Jill, you are so right. Food is flexible. Even rules like, “never have soft drinks” are overly restrictive. Here is why. You are at Disneyland, the zoo or a special event and your kids want to have a soda as a treat. If you have this food rule, this type of special occasion is tarnished with bad feelings (you give in and feel guilty or you hold firm and kids have an increased desire for a forbidden food) rather than lightening up, seeing it as a special occasion and enjoying the day.

  3. Jill– completely fabulous post. Way to put into words what I am always thinking! I usually get as far as, “Food is fun! What is wrong with people…” and then lose my train of thought 🙂 I will be sharing this via Facebook, with perfect timing, as a good friend (and food phobe) just posted a link this a.m. about the “toxic” and “addictive” properties of sugar (sigh)