The Best-Kept Secret for Raising Healthy Eaters

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on May 5, 2011

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I wrote this post as a participant in the Eat, Play, Love blog carnival hosted by Meals Matter and Dairy Council of California to share ideas on positive and fun ways to teach children healthy eating habits. A list of other registered dietitians and moms who are participating in the carnival will be listed at the bottom of this post or can be found on Meals Matter. Don’t miss the free Webinar on May 18th as we talk about the fundamentals for raising healthy eaters. I’ll be speaking along with Janet Helm, RD, Jill Castle, MS, RD and Andrea Garen, MA, RD. It will be a feeding bonanza!

If there’s one thing that I’ve learned since starting this blog two years ago and becoming a mom, it’s that I don’t have all the answers. I can’t give you the exact formula for turning kids into healthy eaters. But I can, as Oprah says, tell you what I know for sure.

There’s one very under-rated strategy for increasing the chances that your child will grow into an adult who eats well. And by well, I mean someone who eats a balanced diet, eats the right amount of food for their body type, eats sweets in moderation, prepares meals for themselves and is healthy because of it.

What’s the secret?

It has nothing to do with starting them young or hiding veggies or any of the stuff you always hear about. Instead, it’s keeping your eye on the prize and not wavering.

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Short term vs. long term
When it comes to feeding, parents have two areas to focus on — short term needs and long term goals. The first, is making sure your kids are fed and meeting their nutritional needs. No doubt this is important. But if you use how our children are eating today as a testament to how you are doing as a feeder, you are likely to be miserable and guilt ridden a lot of the time.

In fact, this pressure to get kids to eat perfectly is what leads to many feeding mistakes. Parents are more likely to pressure kids to eat certain foods or give up entirely. I recently met a mom of a four-year-old who was on the brink of giving up on her child’s eating. (I gave her a really quick pep talk and thankfully she changed her mind).

But if you can keep your focus on the second area, the long-term goal, it changes the game. You will be less tempted to do things to get your children to eat healthy today, but have negative effects long-term. (For more on strategies that back-fire long term, see this post.) In other words, you need to check in with your daily feeding rituals to make sure they are in line with your long-term goal.

Case Study
Maureen K Bligh, MA, RD, is a registered dietitian and mom of two teenage boys, 17 and 18. She remembers all too well what it was like when they were younger and wouldn’t eat meat, rice or veggies (or any mixed dish), but they did eat fruit, milk and bread.

Maureen recalls viewing a video from Ellyn Satter, before having kids, that made a lasting impression. The video showed 5 scenarios of parents forcing kids to eat food and she couldn’t believe her eyes. Her takeaway: “If you force kids to eat they won’t choose to eat those foods in the long run.”

Even though Maureen was not picky when she was a kid — she had two boys that were. And she knew exactly what to do.

She followed the Division of Responsibility of feeding, letting her children decide what and whether to eat of what she decided to serve. Dinner was the toughest meal, as it is with many children, and she made sure to serve it family style, encouraged a pleasant environment, and as a result, heard many, “No thank you mommy, not tonight,” responses.

“I served milk, fruit and bread with each meal,” she adds. “I figured that way they were not going to die.”

When asked if it was difficult she said, “Not really.” It was clear she believed in what she was doing and trusted that one day her children would branch out in the food department.

Then that day came. Her eldest and most picky son, around the age of 8, said four words that made her do the happy dance on the inside: “I’ll have the broccoli.” Maureen says this was the start of his gradually trying more foods, which really took off during middle school.

“I know the experts say it takes 10-15 tries before kids learn to like a food,” she points out. “But I think it takes many more times for some kids, at least that’s how it worked for mine.”

But most importantly her kids will now try anything, are fit, regulate their intake well, eat a variety of foods (from all the food groups) and really seem to value family meals.

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Expectations, beliefs and trust about kids’ eating matter
Most parents believe their kids will learn to read novels, drive cars and do other things adults do every day. But when it comes to eating, many lack the same confidence that their kids will eventually learn to eat well. That’s probably why there is so much pushing and giving up and outright frustration about children’s eating.

Maureen admits that if she had not been prepared, or had the right information, she may have been more pushy with her kids’ eating. Instead she kept her eye on the prize – and believed that, using the division of responsibility, eventually her kids would, of their own volition, choose to eat healthy foods – and it has paid off.

Yet Maureen makes it clear that life at home isn’t perfect. Her boys eat more fast food than she would like and deal with peer pressure when it comes to eating. “It’s still a leap of faith in many respects,” she admits.

Yet she is reminded that her children always return to the foundation of healthy eating she has spent years building in her home. When her youngest son was being hassled for having a dietitian mom he responded, “I like it, mom. I like that you feed us healthy food.”

No doubt you will weather many storms when it comes to your kids’ eating because they are in the process of learning — and have a lot of mistakes to make. I certainly don’t love it when my four-year-old responds to an unfamiliar dinner at a friend’s house with, “Do you have any ice cream?”

I know that for her, ice cream (vanilla) always tastes the same and satisfies. The day will come when she eats more of the food in front of her. The belief and trust that my daughter will grow into a good eater is so strong, that it keeps me going, even on the worst days.

How do you keep perspective when it comes to feeding your kids?

Don’t miss the free Webinar: Eat, Pray, Love: Raising Healthy Eaters on May 18th.

Don’t stop here! Join the carnival and read other Eat, Play, Love blogs from dietitians and moms offering the best advice on raising healthy eaters. And if you don’t get enough today, for more positive, realistic and actionable advice from registered dietitian moms, register for the free, live webinar Eat, Play, Love: Raising Healthy Eaters on Wednesday, May 18.

Feeding is Love, Jill Castle, MS, RD, LDN
5 Quick Ways to Prepare Veggies with Maximum Flavor, Dayle Hayes, MS, RD
The Art of Dinnertime, Elana Natker, MS, RD
Children Don’t Need a Short Order Cook, Christy Slaughter
Cut to the Point – My Foodie Rules, Glenda Gourley
Eat, Play, Love – A Challenge for Families, Alysa Bajenaru, RD
Eat, Play, Love ~ Raising Healthy Eaters, Kia Robertson
Get Kids Cooking, Jessica Fishman Levinson, MS, RD, CDN
Kid-Friendly Kitchen Gear Gets Them Cooking, Katie Sullivan Morford, MS, RD
Kids that Can Cook Make Better Food Choices, Glenda Gourley
Making Mealtime Fun, Nicole Guierin, RD
My No Junk Food Journey – Want to Come Along? , Kristine Lockwood
My Recipe for Raising Healthy Eaters: Eat Like the French, Bridget Swinney MS, RD, LD
Playing with Dough and the Edible Gift of Thyme, Robin Plotkin, RD, LD
Picky Eaters  Will Eat Vegetables, Theresa Grisanti, MA
Raising a Healthy Eater, Danielle Omar, MS, RD
Putting the Ease in Healthy Family Eating, Connie Evers, MS, RD, LD
Raising Healthy Eaters Blog Carnival & Chat Roundup, Ann Dunaway Teh, MS, RD, LD
Soccer Mom Soapbox, Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD
Teenagers Can Be Trying But Don’t Give UpDiane Welland MS, RD
What My Kids Taught Me About Eating Mindfully, Michelle May, MD

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

AKeo May 6, 2011 at 8:07 am

I keep focus by remembering everything I’ve learned through your blog. I also look at the big picture, not just individual meals – the fact that my son eats many things I don’t expect, that at times he is adventurous, and that he still eats a variety of foods. It’s OK for now that the variety doesn’t always include spinach or broccoli. It’s OK that he eats one thing one day and doesn’t eat it the next time.
I think the key is always offering the food they refuse but also always having the food they devour – just as you have taught me!, and knowing that being picky is normal for EVERY kid.
Granted, I think I have it pretty easy considering the “pickyness” of other kids, but that was one of my biggest fears before having kids. I educated myself and I try to do my best. Thanks for all of your super helpful information. I can’t tell you how wonderful your blog has been for my family as we have taken on the adventure of raising a healthy child!

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Shannon May 6, 2011 at 10:08 am

I love this! I’m also a dietitian and have faithfully read Ellyn Satter’s book, and subscribe to the no pressure approach. It sure is challenging at times though! These days I never know which way the wind is going to blow at mealtime with my 15 mo old, but I just have to trust that she’ll eat what she needs, even if that means nothing at times. I sent this post to all of my friends with babies or babies on the way. Thanks!

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Kristine Lockwood May 6, 2011 at 12:56 pm

I am so encouraged by Maureen. Who knew that getting kids to eat well would cause so much stress. I am using a similar technique to Maureen’s. My kids ‘get what they get’ (and often throw a fit), but can choose what to eat on the plate. Some days the plate is empty, some days it looks like they didn’t eat anything. Either way, I feel like I am staying the course.

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Alysa (InspiredRD) May 6, 2011 at 1:11 pm

I love that you talk about “keeping your eye on the prize”. Too often we (especially moms) feel pressure and guilt if our child has a bad day. In our house, we don’t force eating, but we do have the “1 bite rule”. You must take one bite of everything. If you don’t like that first bite, you don’t have to eat any more. But you have to try it. Most of the time, my son will wrinkle his nose at something unfamiliar, take that first bite and exclaim “Mom! I LOVE these mushrooms!” like he’s in total shock that it tastes good. But sometimes he doesn’t like it, and that’s fine. He can try it again next time. My parents had the “1 bite rule” when I was growing up, and I am so thankful that they did!! I love almost all foods, and am always wanting to try new things.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 6, 2011 at 2:30 pm

Hi Alysa! I think the one bite rule can work with some kids, it really depends on temperment. My daughter does better trying food on her own. She takes any enouragement as pressure to eat. I’m glad it’s working well for your family!

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Danielle Omar May 7, 2011 at 2:05 pm

I struggle with wanting my daughter to eat what I serve her — it’s so satisfying when she really likes something I make and it’s so disappointing when she doesn’t. I remind myself often that if she’s hungry, she will eat! My Mom created a healthy foundation for me and I carry that with me today – and I didn’t always finish my plate!

Great post!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 7, 2011 at 8:36 pm

Thanks Danielle! My daugther is the same way — you never know! The truth is I was very much like her when I was younger. I really loved sweets (including fruit) and wasn’t into food until I was older.

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Theresa May 7, 2011 at 2:58 pm

This completely validates my plan with the kids. I let them have what they want and like and offer healthy alternatives at the same time. I trust they will grow to make good choices around food because there is very little that is refused. I’m fortunate they choose carrots and cucumbers over anything else.

Stopping by from Eat, Play, Love. Great article!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 7, 2011 at 8:37 pm

Thanks for stopping by Theresa! Sounds like your kids are doing great.

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goodfountain May 7, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Terrific post. I just love your perspective and the encouragement you provide.

I think this strategy is really paying off with my younger daughter. She’s on a real trying spree. Tonight for dinner my husband and I made veggie sandwiches for ourselves and she tried cucumber. yesterday she tried (and liked) his Asian noodle soup.

The older one is still not interested in trying new things, but I’m working hard at just being chill about it. She does love guacomole now though so I guess she’s trying some…

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