Just in time to scare us away from eating all the Halloween treats, Jane Brody, the health writer for the N.Y. Times, has delivered a stern lecture about healthy eating for our children. Writing approvingly about the new standards for school lunches, she is most concerned that the new school lunch menu is not going down well with young diners. It seems that many school age children are throwing the fruit and vegetables into the garbage and instead are buying chips, hot dogs, fries and the like from vending machines or snack bars.
In her article, Ms. Brody takes both parents and schools to task for this turn of events. She faults the schools for not providing “inviting introductions” to the changes in school lunches, and for not preparing new foods in tasty, attractive ways that might tempt children. While understanding that parents are pressed for time and/or money, she is critical of the fact that they don’t introduce their children to foods that foster good nutrition and a healthy weight.
She writes, “Instead of expecting children to eat what is set before them, as most did in my generation, parents have become short-order cooks, serving children only what they like.” Her point: children’s acceptance of healthy food begins with what they are served and what is available to them at home. And of course, learning from the example set for them by what their parents eat. Ms. Brody uses as a model what she did with her own children and offers some interesting suggestions along the way.
Children’s resistance to “healthy” food is an old story – especially vegetables. Even before the new school lunch mandate parents would complain about finding apples or carrots returned home in lunch boxes. Children were also known to trade with others to get the things they liked best. Parents have reported forever about the difficulty not only in getting their children to eat vegetables, but also in getting them to try anything new generally.
Another familiar story is that of children refusing any variety in the food they would eat. Many parents speak of their frustration over children eating only one thing for long periods of time. Most often it is pasta, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes parents feel triumphant when a child will eat a chicken nugget. Parents know that children need repeated exposure to a new food before even being willing to taste it, much less accept eating it. They describe children pushing something new off the plate, or rejecting all the food on the plate if something new is added.
Despite all the criticism parents have heard recently about children’s poor eating habits and concern about obesity, many parents worry even more about both the lack of variety in what their children will eat and whether they are eating enough. Feeding ones children adequately is very much tied in with motherhood and the need to feel successful as a mother. This speaks to Jane Brody’s criticism that mothers have become “short-order cooks” who serve children only what they like. More to the point is that they make food that they know children will eat.
In some ways, though, this issue may be part of the larger question that has been raised about parental authority, and the feeling many parents have that their children rather than they themselves are in charge. The expectation of an older generation that children eat “what is set before them” is not that different from other parental expectations that have undergone generational changes. These days, it seems that it is the children who expect greater freedom in many areas, and parents often express concern about how to deal with that expectation.
Dealing with this issue has a lot in common with the same question about other areas of children’s lives, and relates to setting expectations in general. The problem is that too often when we don’t get immediate compliance we tend to give up and conclude that we have failed. Parents often say they have “tried everything”. But sometimes trying everything becomes as useless as trying nothing. Introducing any new expectation requires much repetition, which is an important part of how children learn. We know that when it comes to learning reading, writing and arithmetic, but forget that it applies also to many areas of daily life.
When it comes to introducing new foods we don’t have to be intimidated by our children’s protest, sounds of disgust or other ways in which they show their rejection. Without going on a crusade to insist that children try something – “just taste it” – or bribing, nagging, withholding dessert as a condition, a new food can continue to be put out without further comment. It will begin to look familiar to a child after a while, which can often lead to a taste – when no one is looking.
Children love to hear the same story over and over again. They may not love the sound of our voice, but communicating our expectations requires the same need for repetition. And that is really food for thought!