How to use psychology to talk to your children about nutrition

This is a guest post by Allison Gamble, who has been a curious student of psychology since high school. She brings her understanding of the mind to work in the weird world of internet marketing, and is still trying to teach herself not to clean her plate.

Human Snowman
Creative Commons License photo credit: left-hand

Food and nutrition are difficult subjects for adults, and even more so for kids. A child’s taste preferences are influenced by outside sources almost from birth, so it doesn’t take a psychology degree to realize that it’s necessary for parents to guide them in making healthy food choices.

Clearly, your kids don’t think about nutrition the way you do, so you need to look at things from their perspective in order to avoid common pitfalls in the emotional realm of food and eating.

Kids and Healthy Eating Habits

Kids begin to develop preferences for food at a very young age. If you want your kids to grow up eating a variety of foods, aim to give them a number of options as these preferences develop. As they get older, encourage them to choose different kinds of healthful, whole foods like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains.

Even if you make many wholesome foods available, chances are your kids will want something sweet from time to time. Instead of slapping a label of “bad” or “unhealthy” on desserts and treats that will turn these foods into guilty pleasures, allow your children to eat them in reasonable portions. If they ask why they can’t have more, use their questions as an opportunity to talk about how different foods affect the body. Your kids will probably notice that they feel better after eating fruits and vegetables than after candy or cake, and helping them to understand why goes a long way towards giving them the tools to make good food choices in the future.

Above all, be a positive role model for your kids. If you’re constantly hung up on calories, fat content, carbs or weight, your kids will be too. Remember that kids are extremely observant and will often do what they see you doing, regardless of what you say.

The Many Faces of Food

For kids and adults alike, food is more than just physical nourishment. Advertisers work hard to target kids by using specific situations, emotions, and ideas to convince youngsters that eating a certain food will yield a positive result. Unfortunately, parents can be just as much at fault when it comes to attaching emotion to food. Saying things like, “You can’t have cake until you finish your vegetables,” or “If you’re good today, we’ll go get ice cream,” sets kids up to think of food in terms of reward or punishment instead of health and nutrition.

Odds are, your kids know how to listen to their bodies much better than you do. Young children haven’t yet been exposed to societal pressures that make adults fixate on food choices. Kids naturally eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, an instinct that’s important to honor. Forcing kids to clean their plates when they’re not hungry or don’t feel well leads to the feeling that they must eat even if they don’t want to, undermining the natural cycle of hunger and fullness. Don’t worry if your child doesn’t eat very much one day or decides he’s not hungry. Instead, let the matter drop and go do something else he enjoys. When he’s ready to eat, he’ll let you know.

Teaching kids to make healthy food choices is as much a matter of showing as it is of telling. Giving kids a positive perspective through discussion and being a good role model leads to intelligent choices based on facts about nutrition rather than perceived ideas of good and bad. Kids know how to listen to their bodies, so as a parent, all you have to do is nurture that natural instinct.

In summary

  • Encourage your children towards healthful, whole foods.
  • Don’t turn desserts and treats into guilty pleasures or rewards.
  • Be a positive role model
  • Let your child eat intuitively. They’ll eat when they get hungry. Don’t force it.

What has worked for you? Share your tips!