3 Ways to Get Kids to Eat Better

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For many parents, talking with children about eating, weight or nutrition is like mincing through a conversational minefield.

Indeed, shortly after a study in JAMA reported that nearly one-quarter of American children and teenagers are obese, the American Academy of Pediatrics warned that encouraging an adolescent to “eat healthy” could trigger an eating disorder. Adults discussing food choices with young people also may be trying not to trip over their own baggage around health and appearance.

So often, parents worry that comments on their children’s eating habits will be received as judgments about body weight or character. With the flood of Halloween candy coming around the corner, following are some suggestions for ways to talk about healthful eating without any references to looks.

The zero-sum-game angle

Young people understand that there are limits to how much food we can and should take in. Dr. Hope Barkoukis, chairwoman of the department of nutrition in the school of medicine at Case Western Reserve University and a registered dietitian, encourages parents to teach their children that “food is a lifeline for health” and that every food choice moves us either toward physical well-being or away from it.

She notes that highly processed foods do provide energy, but unprocessed foods are the ones that best supply “vitamins, minerals, dietary compounds and biologically active agents with anti-inflammatory, cancer-preventing, immune-boosting properties.”

Some unhealthy foods can be part of a diet, she explains, so long as they don’t crowd out the essential nutrition that “promotes physical and emotional health, supports the immune system and reduces the risk for disease.”

With a younger child, we can keep our conversations at home neutral, even lighthearted, by deferring to biological realities. For example, we might say, “You know how plants need both water and sunlight to grow? Well, humans need more than just calories to be healthy. A funsize Milky Way will give you energy, but if that’s where most of your fuel comes from, eventually your leaves will start to turn yellow. A pear gives you the same amount of energy, plus a lot of other nutrients you need for health.”

The self-care angle

Framing eating as a critical way that we care for ourselves supports our children’s growing independence and also keeps adults out of fruitless, even dangerous, power struggles over food. The diets of younger children reflect what adults make available, but teenagers inevitably have far more freedom, which they will sometimes exercise at their own expense. In my practice, I’ve worked with anorexic adolescents who dissemble about what and when they are eating, and with overweight teenagers who wished to lose weight yet gorged on sweets to protest diets imposed by their parents.

To promote an attitude of caring for themselves around food, we can help children and teenagers tune in to their appetites to determine how much to eat. Despite the rush of family life we should aim to ask mealtime questions such as, “Are you hungry?” or “How hungry are you?” or “Do you still feel hungry, or are you good to go?” (Nutritionists note that some highly active young people may not be able to use their appetites as a reliable guide for how much they should eat.)

We can also remind our children that consuming sustaining foods is a key component of self-care. If needed, we could offer something along the lines of, “You know that having a Butterfinger for breakfast is pretty hard on your body, and that I’m in the business of helping you take great care of yourself. Can I make you a quick egg instead?”

Should our children or adolescents eat too little or too much, or not nutritiously enough, we can alert them that they aren’t being fair to themselves and offer to help get them back on track. Failing that (and sometimes, it fails), we can recruit a neutral outsider like a pediatrician or registered dietitian to guide and monitor a young person’s self-care.

The beyond-the-self angle

Parents can also nudge children and teenagers toward healthy options by addressing the broader impact of what we choose to eat. For example, we might point out that eating a whole fruit leaves a lighter environmental footprint than opting for a factory-made, fruit-flavored snack sheathed in multiple layers of packaging.

Most attempts to improve our diets fail because the short-term gratification of eating junk food easily outmatches the distant benefit of greater physical health. But linking food choices to altruistic aims can help to increase the likelihood of behavior change. Making a socially valuable choice provides an immediate pleasure of its own. Once the Halloween candy runs out, you might remind your kids: “Eating a real green apple is way better for the environment than a green-apple-flavored Starburst.”

Similarly, a new study shows that adolescents in particular may respond to health-related messaging with a social justice bent. Teenagers were found to choose healthier snacks once they better understood manipulative food industry practices. By portraying “healthy eating as a way to ‘stick it to the man,’” researchers promoted smarter food choices by harnessing the powerful adolescent drive for autonomy.

It’s helpful to remember that talking about food choices is only one of the ways we shape how our children eat. Indeed, research consistently demonstrates that what children consume tends to match what their parents consume, both in terms of food quality and quantity. Economic and logistical barriers sorely limit nutritional options for many families, but parents who are able to choose how they themselves eat can reinforce healthy habits by modeling them.