good food/bad food

Parents often think it is our job to teach our children about healthy and unhealthy foods:

"Sugar and junk food are bad for you. Eat something healthy, like carrot sticks, instead."

I'm simply not convinced that this approach is very effective. Weak food/strong food, healthy/not healthy, good for you/bad for you are all externally imposed value judgments, and are only the endpoints of what is actually a continuum of value that is different for each person's body chemistry.

Many kids respond to pronouncements and directives such as these with rebellion, rather than acceptance. (You'll find them sneaking candy bars and hiding them in their rooms, or getting 'bad food' from a friend's house.)

It's not really that surprising, is it? Kids learn best through experience. When we forget that and issue directives, all we do is clutter up their feedback loop. "I don't care if my stomach hurts or not - I'm gonna eat it anyway! She's not the boss of me!"

What if instead, we let our children's appetite and inner sensory feedback guide their choices? What if we mention our concerns and our own experiences, and then encourage them to experiment and gather information about their own bodies?

Here's how it sounds to share our concerns:

I'm concerned that the caffeine in that chocolate might make it hard for you to fall asleep in an hour.

I'm concerned that if you eat more bread right now, you won't be hungry for your chicken when it comes.

Here's how it sounds to share our experiences:

When I have chocolate after dinner, it's hard for me to fall asleep.

When I eat lots of bread before my dinner comes, I notice I sometimes am not hungry for the meal I ordered, and I usually feel sort of sleepy and cranky after that.

I love how much energy I have all day when I have a big salad with turkey on top for my lunch!

Both of these can be followed by:

It will be interesting to see how your body feels after eating that.

I don't know about you, but I don't want my kid walking around thinking that 'bad' food has some kind of magical power over his body. I'd rather help him simply link up how he feels after eating, and then step aside so he can conduct the next experiment.

As always, it goes without saying that parents can be very influential role models by demonstrating the kind of eating habits you hope he will develop. I wouldn't advise stocking your fridge with only soda or your shelves with only candy. But I also wouldn't advise sending your child to a birthday party with a sugar free granola bar to avoid all the toxins in birthday cake! Most of us can handle anything in moderation, and being afraid of food is not healthy, either.

As much as possible, let your kids learn for themselves how they feel after eating certain things. Make the process safe by being empathetic rather than saying "I told you so!" The conclusions they draw from their experiments will be far more powerful than any lessons you've tried to teach them.

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