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“Stealth Health” or “Psychological Nudges”? Getting kids eating better

October 25, 2010 7 comments

From the NPR website: Courtesy of Christine M. Gray, principal of Oakton Elementary Third-graders Kalli Cannistraro (from right) and Emily Park sample healthy food options at Oakton Elementary

This morning on National Public Radio’s Morning Edition, two solutions were offered to get kids eating healthier at school.

The first, developed by a couple of moms, is to conceal pureed vegetables–“hidden healthies”– in kid favorites like cheese sauce on corn chips.  Obviously, this is a plan inspired by two mom-authored cookbooks published a few years ago, which arm moms with all the weaponry for getting vegetables down kids’ throats without their realizing. These  double-dealing recipes are, I suppose, probably nutritionally superior to the processed junk most schools are feeding kids.

The problem with this approach, as pointed out by David Just of the Center for Behavioral Economics and Child Nutrition at Cornell University, is that kids aren’t learning to make good choices. They’ll get a little nutrition inside them at school through these sneaky dishes, but their tastes and their choices are left in the same sad shape for wherever else they eat.

Just’s almost equally sneaky plan takes us one step further toward a solution to the problem. With funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, his group is studying the “psychological nudges” that can directly influence children’s food choices in the lunchroom.

For example, if we make the chocolate milk a little harder to see and reach than the white milk, more kids will choose the white milk, if only inadvertently. It works on the youngsters in the middle, who aren’t that committed to junk food, those not paying attention, whose vote can be unconsciously swung with certain strategic lighting or by making the junky choices less convenient in various ways. The idea is to create an environment that encourages good choices without confronting the bad choices.

It’s fascinating to see how our choices can be influenced by smart researchers. It’s interesting. It’s clever. It works. It’s not a bad thing. I like to be sneaky too: put out raw vegetables when kids are hungry, or serve salad as a first course, also when they’re hungry, so they’re more likely to eat it.  I try to serve healthy food attractively. I’m all for such wisely passive techniques to get kids to eat better.

I just wonder how much money is coming out of tax dollars to develop these painstaking methods to increase the good choices our kids are making, on top of all the money being spent at the same time to buy junk food to offer in school cafeterias. We’re proposing it with one hand while we try to get them not to take it with the other. It seems like a house divided. Still, the plan has some value, but I wonder if kids’ choices will be any better when they leave school, when they’ll be bombarded by the urgency of bad choices. What happens when the psychological nudges are all pushing the other direction? What will happen when they walk down the street, or watch TV, or go to the movies or a restaurant?

The trouble with this solution is that it still doesn’t go nearly far enough.  We can create an atmosphere where the “psychological nudges” are positive but that doesn’t mean we’ve instilled conviction or understanding or any kind of commitment to healthy choices or appreciation of healthy food. The only good thing is they might gradually start getting used to and enjoying healthy choices a bit more through exposure. These choices we’re encouraging are still unconscious and temporary, dependent on just the right cues. We can’t recreate these cues everywhere in the world any more than we can get rid of all the germs or allergens our children might encounter in the world. Maybe leaving the chocolate milk as a choice would be a good thing if we could manage to get all the kids to reject it, if they were learning to choose well when they are tempted, but that’s not what the psychological cues methods are attempting to do.

What we can do is so much simpler. It doesn’t require any government funding or expensive research. It doesn’t require sophisticated expertise in psychological manipulation. It just requires good sense and a commitment to teaching our children to feed themselves well for life.

First, at home and at school, we need to provide only good choices, without apology. Just as kids will encounter germs in the world,they’ll also face plenty of pressure to eat junk in life. However, we don’t want to be the ones actually providing a filthy environment or junk food with our home budget or our tax dollars. How much resources are going into getting kids not to drink the chocolate milk, when we could just eliminate it from the choices? Yes, kids want choices, but those choices we provide should be between great and great, wonderful and another kind of wonderful.

If parents want to feed their kids sugar and junk food, there’s probably not much that can be done right now, other than education and awareness. Many parents are apparently supplying their kids with plenty of junk food. I just don’t see how we can justify proving a single bite more in tax funded schools.  How can we deliberately choose to use our resources to add to the problem?

Next, we want to cultivate children’s tastes. We need to quit being sneaky and be direct. Kids are reasonable creatures and can take it. They can learn to appreciate real food. We want to introduce them to the genuine article: real vegetables in all their naked glory, as amazingly prepared and seasoned and as beautiful and fragrant as we can manage.  We want to expose them to the widest variety of real foods possible. We don’t need to invent new or sneaky recipes, rather bring out the most amazing ones that have been developed around the world and through the ages. We want kids to make friends of as many different healthy foods as can be. We need to create an atmosphere where healthy food is yummy and interesting and attractive, rather than just the more convenient option. We want them to learn to enjoy healthy foods. If they don’t, we’re giving them a fish instead of teaching them to fish.

Next, we need to educate children about the terrible things junk food does to their bodies. We need to be vivid and graphic and terrifying. Disgusting works, too. We need to show them how junk food is produced, its nasty origins and what’s wrong with it. They need to hear how corporations are poisoning them for profit. They need to see demonstrated dramatically the havoc sugar and industrial grease wreaks on your body chemistry.  They deserve to know about the illnesses bad eating causes. We need to tell them the same stories that have convinced and inspired us to want to eat well.

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Related post:

Child Obesity Task Force: Stacking the Deck against Parents and Health

11 Ways to Raise a Picky Eater

October 22, 2010 6 comments

The Spoiled Child -- Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805)

1.  Don’t expect kids to enjoy health-giving, real foods.

2.  Feed them kid food: specially manufactured edibles designed for kids–baby food in a jar or packaged finger foods made for children, instead of real, whole foods. It’s easy, and, just as cat food is designed to appeal to cats, the flavors are technologically designed to be accepted by kids.  Children are sure to eat them. Also, those edibles get babies used to artificial flavors and sugar early and increases their chances of rejecting real food.

3.  Make one meal for the adults and another for children, because kids don’t like what adults will eat. Stick to the foods kids are generally known to eat, like chicken nuggets, hotdogs, pizza and french fries.

4.  Give children rewards for eating.

5.  Micromanage their eating. If they want more meat, make them eat a bite of carrots first, then a bite of salad.

6.  Don’t trust them to serve or feed themselves or decide what or how much to eat.

7.  Make sure the foods they know and like are always available, in case they won’t eat whatever else is served.

8.  Don’t threaten or traumatize them with new, scary foods.

9.  Let them eat whatever and whenever they will eat, and don’t ever limit their eating. That way they’re sure to fill up on junk and not be hungry for real food at meals.

10.  Make your meals dutiful: bland and plain, and always have dessert. Convey the attitude that we “have to” eat meals and “get to” eat desserts and junk food. A spoonful of sugar helps the “medicine” go down.

11. Worry a lot about your kids’ eating. Fuss at them and make them eat, whether they want to or not.

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Other posts on what to do about picky eaters:

Picky kids and the codependent mom: Three tips to break the cycle

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part I

The Codependent Mom: Feeding Your Child’s Food Addiction

October 17, 2010 14 comments

When your baby started to scoot around the house, you probably changed your decor. You moved breakables or dangerous items out of reach. You covered your electrical outlets.

You may have also cleaned up your personal act in various ways to make a healthy, safe, positive environment for your dear baby.

You kept careful watch over your little one, and with a sensible combination of environmental adjustments, vigilance, and training of your baby not to touch those dangers that couldn’t be removed, you made your house a place where your darling could play and learn and enjoy freedom and safety.

You limited your child’s choices, without offering dangerous fun in order to get her to do beneficial things. You wouldn’t, for example, say she could chew on the electrical cord if she would play with her blocks first.

You wouldn’t tolerate her playing with the food processor in hopes she would also end up spending some time looking at her alphabet book like you wanted her to.

I trust you wouldn’t use a cable porn show as a bait to get your little tyke to watch an educational show on PBS, or hold out a dirty magazine in exchange for reading Mother Goose with you.

You wouldn’t offer a little cocaine if he would just drink his milk. You wouldn’t knowingly get your child hooked on an addictive, harmful substance and then continue to feed that addiction, happy to feel needed and happy because your tot was happy.

How about a little treat, a soda, a candy bar, a bag of chips, a donut, a trip to McDonald’s, to get him to eat his veggies, or just because we want to?

According to recent research, those sugary, salty, fatty, yummy, junk food and fast food treats we all enjoy are not just bad for us; they’re also literally addictive. Just like heroin, they lead us to overdo it. We develop tolerance to them. The more we eat, the more we want to eat. We crave. It’s nigh impossible to quit.

Scientific findings continue to confirm that the similarities of junk food to narcotics are more than just a joke.

Processed foods today are deliberately engineered with salt, bad fats and sugar to be as seductive and addictive as possible, what food industry folks call “eatertainment,” according to David Kessler, in The End of Overeating. Lab rats’ brains, he claims, respond to these sweet, salty, greasy foods like an addict’s to cocaine.

No wonder so many people are overweight and unable to lose weight. No wonder our kids are going down the path to obesity in droves.

Knowledge is power against the junk food pushers who stand to gain by getting our kids hooked on their garbage edibles. Awareness is transforming. When we know the truth, if we realize that sugar and junk food is similar meth or heroin, we see things differently.

As extreme and cruel it may seem today to deny your child all processed junk food, I believe the day will come when we, or our children, will look back and marvel at our ignorance, like before we knew about germs, or the dangers of lead paint or cigarettes, and how we thought it was OK to have a little here and there—all in moderation.

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Related post:

Eating Mindfully: How to keep kids from getting fat by turning on to better food

Picky Kids and the Codependent Mom: Three Tips to Break the Cycle

October 10, 2010 13 comments

It’s taken me awhile to figure out what “codependent” means.  What I’ve learned makes me think that codependency is actually pretty common among us parents.  If we aren’t living with an alcoholic or an addict or an abuser (yet), we may think, “That’s not me.”  But parents of picky eaters may be just inches away from falling into the role of a codependent.

Codependency is more complicated than the joke I’ve seen about you and your cat falling into those roles: he likes being petted and you like petting him. In its classic form, it’s rather that your daughter is an addict and you bail her out, cover for her, fail to hold her responsible for anything, maybe even give her money for her fixes so she doesn’t suffer, making it easy for her to continue her habit, all with the goal of changing her. It may also be rather that your son likes to eat junk food and you like to feed it to him, though you might be complaining the whole while.

Codependency is perpetuating your child’s problems by trying to over-control, all while enabling those problems and taking them on as your own. It’s being overly tied up with another person’s problems in a way that makes the problems worse for both parties. Being codependent is anything but fun, yet it can be hard to see clearly to breaking free. The boundaries of where we need to back off and where we need to hold the line can be impossibly blurry.

Parents of picky eaters are perfect candidates for codependency.

If, for example, your child, Josh, a little overweight, refuses to eat but a few things: bean-and-cheese tacos, sausage pizza and chicken nuggets, you offer bribes, get emotional, beg, threaten and yell at him to eat the healthy meals you fix. But he won’t eat them, so he cries for what he wants to eat, and you give it to him. You always keep those foods on hand, so he won’t go hungry.

Mom is the one being controlled by little Josh while the problem continues. She makes it possible for him keep doing the destructive thing. Meanwhile, emotionally, his problem is more Mom’s problem than his.

“When we attempt to control people and things that we have no business controlling, we are controlled,” writes Melody Beattie, in Codependent No More: How to Stop Controlling Others and Start Caring for Yourself.

Beattie gives a few pointers that can be applied to codependents in the feeding relationship to breaking free from the cycle of codependency:

1. Take care of yourself. Making dinner is normal. Making two dinners every night, including a special one to please the picky, is not. Getting up to feed a three-week-old in the middle of the night is normal. Doing it for a three-year-old or a 13-year-old is not.  If your eight-year-old wakes you up in the night because he’s hungry, he needs to find himself sorry he did so, not rewarded for doing so.

Just because you’re suffering doesn’t mean you’re doing the best thing for your child. Taking care of yourself is not selfishness, or mutually exclusive of taking care of your child. Kids benefit by learning to respect others’ rights and needs. They also are likelier to learn normal eating habits.

2. Detach and minimize your reactions. “Sometimes people behave in certain ways to provoke us to react in a certain way,” Beattie explains. “If we stop reacting in these certain ways, we take all the fun out of it for them. We remove ourselves from their control and take away their power over us.”

If a child is refusing to eat just to be able to win over you, not reacting takes away any reason to do it.

3. Let kids be more responsible for their own actions and own problems. Providing healthy, tasty meals is normal. Making sure kids eat it is not. Picky eating is a direct reaction to being pressured to eat. Have faith in children’s ability to know how much they need to eat and what they need to eat, from among your healthy choices.

Kids making choices about what they eat–when all the options are good–is normal. Kids making choices about what parents offer them to eat is less so. If they want a certain food or want it a certain way, and seem to be jerking you around, engage their efforts to make it happen.  If little Josh wants something complicated, give him the job. Don’t work twice as hard in the name of giving them “choices” (see number one above) or just to get them to eat. It doesn’t work. Parents should provide the best foods possible, and then they need to back off.

When we over-control, writes Beattie, “People will either resist our efforts or redouble their efforts to prove we can’t control them.” They also tend to punish us somehow when we try to make them do something they don’t want to do, she notes. We parents gotta make kids do some things, but we don’t ever need to feel responsible for making them eat. Their appetites equip them perfectly to take care of themselves from day one.

Beattie examines why the codependent parent works so hard, to everyone’s detriment:

“We control in the name of love.

We do it because we’re ‘only trying to help.’

We do it because we know best.

We control because we’re afraid not to.

We do it because we don’t know what else to do.

We control because we think we have to.”

Related posts:

Eating Power Struggles with Kids: Why they’re Useless and How to End Them

The False Dilemma of Controlling What Kids Eat

Push or Pull? When picky kids pick your dinner to pieces

October 5, 2010 6 comments

How do you deal with, or not deal with, a picky kid? -- photo by Anna Migeon

This question came recently from a reader, Rosie Kate:

“How do you deal (or not deal) with a child who picks through food for ingredients he doesn’t like?  My five-year-old son went through an ‘anti-onion’ phase, in which he complained about bits of onion in his food. I told him to quietly remove them, but not to be rude about it.

Now it’s zucchini (of which we eat lots because we have lots in the garden, of course!). Same rule applies, but it kinda bugs me (I’m making sure not to let him know that, though, because then it would be a control game).”

So what would you do?  The normal, intuitive response to this situation is generally to find a way to induce the child to eat the zucchini.

Which of these typical reactions would you try?

1.   Command: “You must eat it anyway: zucchini and all.”

2.    Offer a reward: “If you do, you will get dessert/get to play video games tonight.”

3.    Threaten: “If you don’t eat it, no dessert, or no video games tonight.”

4.    Talk about it.  Express displeasure. Try to talk him into eating and liking it. Tell him it’s good for him.

5.     Put up with his whining and complaining and misbehavior in hopes he’ll end up eating it.

6.     Put up with him picking out all the pieces, and then throw them away (or eat them yourself), but not feel happy about it.

Picky eating may just be experimental: “Let’s see what happens when I try not eating,” thinks Sam, unconsciously, of course.  “I want to be my own man. Maybe this is a good way to show Mom I can do my own thing.”  It’s up to Mom, next, whether it works well for Sam or not.

Keeping in mind that pushing leads to further resistance, and pulling away may well lead to greater appreciation for the thing withdrawn, we need to look for a way to pull away food, somehow, somewhere, when kids act fussy. We need an an anti-push action to counter their resistance.

My suggestion to correct undesirable eating behaviors is to always look for a way to restrict access to food somehow. Turn the rejected item into forbidden fruit. Turn it around so that instead of getting to turn something down, he’s getting turned down. For example, when any kid didn’t want to eat something, my mom used to say, “Good; leaves more for the rest of us.”

If your child isn’t hungry at dinner, don’t try to make him eat it; rather keep him from eating anything that allows him to be un-hungry for what you want him to eat until you are ready for him to eat. Then he’ll be hungry for YOUR choice.

So for Rosie Kate’s dilemma, this is my suggestion:

Tell your son, “If you are going to pick parts out, I’d rather you not take any at all. That is not an acceptable way to eat. You do not ever have to eat anything you don’t like or feel like eating, ever, but this dish has zucchini it in. That’s what it’s made of and how we eat it. No way am I going to throw out a pile of zucchini. You can just eat the carrots / soup / chicken tonight if that’s all you want.  Absolutely!  Dad and Ashley and I will keep the zucchini tetrazini for ourselves. But we all want some carrots / soup / chicken, too, so you can only have your share of them (another pulling away action that increases the perceived value of food). Now, I don’t want to hear another word about it.”

Having another component, such as carrots or whatever, to the meal, gives him some options, but if he’s still hungry after eating those options, all the better.  Don’t make him lose face if he decides to eat the zucchini tetrazini after all. Don’t pay any attention to what he does, how much or what he eats, or if he is hungry later. He might decide being picky is not really all that rewarding.  Not getting to eat something doesn’t have the same thrill as refusing to eat something.

The most important principle to stay true to is always leaving kids totally in charge of what goes in their mouths from among the foods you choose to offer. No pushing to eat and loads of pulling away: not allowing him to eat when, what, and where you don’t want him to.

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Related posts:

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat, Part I

Six ways to orchestrate kids’ desire to eat what you want them to eat Part II

Categories: Advice Column