Eat by example: Teach kids about healthier habits by making better food choices


Melissa Hyde PHOTO CREDIT: Contributed

Parents vary widely in the diets and nutrition they believe to be best for their families.

Dairy-free, gluten-free, soy-free, vegan and vegetarian diets have all become common in our culture, and our grocery store aisles reflect this trend.

For many families, it is members with health issues and food allergies that determine which ingredients are placed on the table at mealtimes. For others, it is ethical values or a belief in a certain lifestyle.

No matter which dietary path is chosen, all parents want to provide healthy nutrition for the members of their family. And this often means little to no “junk food.”

When I was in college, I took several child development and psychology classes connected to the field of education. I vividly remember learning about a study that examined children’s choices when presented with junk food.

The researchers first polled the participating parents to see what restrictions they imposed on their children’s diet and eating habits. They then separated the children into two groups.

The first group of children had parents who did not control or limit the foods they could eat.

The second group had parents who did not allow them to eat anything they considered to be “junk food.”

The children in the two groups were brought to a pre-planned event with games and other fun activities where they could play. At lunchtime, the children all sat down to a lunch of pizza and sweets.

The researchers were interested to see what the children would do when given access to these foods without a parent’s oversight.

All of the children were offered a single slice of pizza to begin. Once a child had eaten their first piece of pizza, additional slices were offered, one at a time, until the child signaled that he or she was full.

The researchers noticed vastly different behaviors within the two groups of children. The first group — who had no restrictions on the foods they ate — signaled that they were full after two or three slices of pizza and moved on to rejoin the fun activities at the event. Many even declined the sweets offered for dessert, opting to play instead.

The majority of the children in the second group, however, continued to accept and eat the pizza as long as it was offered. Despite appearing full, they were reluctant to turn down the food while it was there. Many also took dessert even though it was apparent they were no longer hungry.

Without being a trained psychologist, my takeaway from this study is that sometimes when we make something off limits or label it taboo, there can be a backlash when that elusive item suddenly becomes available.

Though I have searched the internet to try and locate this original study, I have not managed to find it again. I did, however, find other studies that yielded similar results.

In 2002, the American Society for Clinical Nutrition published a study of young girls and found that those with restricted diets — particularly regarding access to junk food — were five times more likely to overeat by age 7. They also were nearly five times more likely to be overweight compared to girls who were given more freedom over their dietary choices.

Sara Dimerman, a child psychologist from Canada, offered her interpretation of these findings: “Whenever children feel deprived, the tendency is to push back and want it even more.”

Does this mean we should allow our children complete free rein over their eating habits? Probably not. But perhaps we should be teaching our children how to start making wise choices on their own, rather than micromanaging what they eat. There are many nutritionists who offer advice on how to do this.

Registered dietitian Judi Holland recognizes that different families have different ideas of what defines junk food. Whatever foods your family considers unhealthy, Holland recommends avoiding labeling these foods as bad. Instead, try explaining that these foods have little to no nutritional value and should be eaten minimally.

Dr. Debita Dutta advises against using junk food as a reward, bribe or special treat. It is common for parents to use sweet, sugary foods in this way because it is a quick and colorful gift that can bring a smile to your child’s face. However, this is a dangerous habit to fall into that often leads to excessive junk food consumption without one necessarily being aware of it.

Look for other ways, she says, such as extra time doing a favored activity or a special family outing, as ways to treat and reward your children.

Charlotte Markey, a health psychology professor at Rutgers University, believes in occasionally offering sweet and salty treats, rather than trying to eliminate them from your children’s diets altogether.

She advises keeping some less healthy treats in the house and using them to teach your children about healthy portion sizes and balanced diets. For example, offer a dollop of whipped cream to top a serving of fruit, or mix carrots with a handful of chips or pretzels for an occasional snack.

She follows this advice in her house, explaining, “I don’t want to make anything off-limits, and thus, heighten its appeal.”

There also are doctors who encourage parents to look for healthier versions of popular treats that are made with organic ingredients and less sugar or those that are baked rather than fried.

Due to our society’s increased awareness of healthy nutrition, there are plenty of these options out there. However, it is up to you to decide to combat junk food and encourage healthy eating habits in your children.

Children look to us to model healthy dietary habits for them to learn from. So, when we eat regular meals, build variety into our diet and exercise portion control, we are taking the most important step towards setting our children up for

life-long healthy eating habits.

Melissa Hyde has a masters in education from Pepperdine University in Los Angeles and more than 10 years experience teaching elementary education. She works for Challenge to Change in Dubuque, teaching children social emotional regulation skills through the practices of yoga and mindfulness.

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