5 Motivational Techniques that Will Transform Your Child’s Eating

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on March 21, 2013

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One reason parents get so frustrated with feeding children is that children don’t always eat what is served. I believe that half the battle is helping children create an internal desire to make good choices now and eventually when they are out on their own.

In fact, it’s never too soon to think about how best to motivate children in the direction of healthy eating.  This means even babies learn that eating is fun or a drag depending on how it’s done.  And this learning about food never stops!

Here are 5 motivational techniques that can help you, help your child, build healthy eating habits that stick.

1) Promote Autonomy: Autonomy, defined on wikipedia as “the capacity of an individual to make an informed, un-coerced decision,” is a big buzz word in the world of motivation.  Research shows that people are more likely to maintain healthier lifestyles when the decision to do so comes from them and not some outside source.

This was demonstrated in a recent study published in the Journal of Pediatrics.  Instead of mandating children take a fruit and veggie, changes were made to make fruit and vegetables more attractive (placed in nice bowls), accessible (at the cash register) and letting children try them.  As a result of the changes, the students were 13 percent more likely to take fruits and 23 percent more likely to take vegetables with consumption increasing by 18 percent and 25 percent, respectively.

What to do?  The Ellyn Satter Division of Responsibility is perfect for building autonomy early on as it provides children with reasonable choice — parents decide what, when and where and children decide how much or whether to eat.  Other ways to promote autonomy is to make healthy items accessible, have children help with meal planning and preparation, give kids reasonable food choice and let them lead the nutrition discussions based on their interests.

2) Build on Skills: A feeling of competence is important for motivation, something health professionals call self efficacy.  People who feel confident in their skills are more likely to maintain that behavior in times of stress or when things aren’t so easy.

Two recent studies with adolescents showed that those who utilized self regulation strategies (planning ahead, etc.) and self regulation cognitions (committed to goal, self efficacy and autonomy) ate healthier and were less vulnerable to easy access to nutrition-poor food.

What to do?  A child who is constantly criticized, micromanaged during meals and not allowed to make mistakes will become less confident with eating.  With younger children, build an expectant attitude by continuing to offer previously rejected foods, allowing children to feed themselves and explore food and serve themselves with help.  Older children can serve themselves at mealtime, make items with assistance and test-drive food decisions outside of the home.  Act as a guide when they make mistakes without shaming or blaming (ask: I see you had X to eat before your game, how did that make you feel?).

Teens eating crisps

3) Create Positive Associations: Motivation research shows that people find time for what they enjoy and put off what they don’t. Someone may know, for example, that a certain behavior, like exercise, would be good for them, but if they subconsciously associate it with negative feelings, the behavior will be like a repellant.

Take a 2012 study in Appetite.  Mothers of 6 to 12 year olds filled out a questionnaire about mealtime.  Children who enjoyed eating tended to be less picky while children pressured to eat were more selective with what they ate.  The study found that cooking was partly responsible for the enjoyment children got from eating.

The authors hypothesize that food environments that help make eating a positive experience, like cooking, results in kids’ enjoying eating and choosing healthier options. In contrast, environments that create negative experiences, usually from pressure and restriction, do the opposite. They result in less enjoyment and ironically worse eating, something that has also been shown in other research.

What to do? Parents often make the mistake of making healthy food a negative like “eat your vegetables” or “no more cereal until you eat fruit” or “no dessert until you eat more protein.”  Instead, ask yourself why your child isn’t eating healthy items.  He may be tiring of the same old options or may not be ready for bitter-tasting vegetables (yet), doesn’t like the taste, or simply doesn’t want any that day.  So model the experience of enjoying food yourself. Also help your kids associate food with fun through giving them enjoyable jobs in the kitchen and trying different preparation methods to optimize taste.  Above all, make the kitchen table a place of connection where children want to be.

dreamstime_xs_16958879 4) Show the Daily Benefits:   In order to stay motivated to continue a behavior people need to see its real value — how it improves their whole life.  Believe it or not, eating “healthy” for general health and weight management are not long-term motivators.  What turns out to be more motivating are daily payoffs people can see and feel NOW.

A 2010 study in Public Health Nutrition with low income families showed that the parents who used a non-directive food parenting style (availability and accessibility of food) versus a style that is directive (applying pressure to eat) had children who ate more fruits and vegetables at home.  The non-directive parents also used teachable moments to help children value healthy eating, such as cooking and helping children see the connection between how their bodies feel and eating.

What to do?  Help your child see how eating well helps her better do the things she enjoys.  If she plays sports help her to see the connection (Ask: How did that snack make you feel during game time?  Did you have energy?).  If she enjoys learning, she will benefit from knowing that the food she eats affects the brain (Ask: On what days do you feel you have the most focus at school?  Which breakfast keeps you going until lunch?).  Avoid exaggerating food’s impact though (e.g., like saying she will grow an inch tomorrow or her hair will be like Rapunzel’s if she eats something) because children learn pretty quickly these statements aren’t true. Fearless Feeding is chock-full of teachable moments at every age and stage.

5) Present the Positives: The more people focus on what they shouldn’t do, the less likely they are to “not do” the behavior.  Researchers hypothesize that encouraging the avoidance of certain behaviors actually brings them front and center to the brain, making them irresistible.

This conclusion is supported by a study conducted in 2008. In this research, people were either assigned to a “eat more healthy snacks” intention or an “avoid unhealthy snacks” goal.  They found that at the end of two weeks, the people who consumed more unhealthy snacks where the ones told to avoid them.  Bottom line: the more we tell ourselves not to do something, the more we want to do it!

What to do?  Instead of hammering your child to stay away from this or that (no more cake, you need to stop eating junk food), focus on what you want him to do (let’s eat some real food to fill our bellies, those berries sure taste good, we’ll have more sweets another time) — and make sure the message is positive not negative. For easy ways to manage sweets check out my series.

Have you thought much about what motivates your child (and you?) to eat well?  Let’s talk about it in the comments.

Special thanks to motivational expert Michelle Segar for not only inspiring this post, but reviewing it!

Check back later for references

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Diane Keddy March 26, 2013 at 10:45 am

Excellent article Maryann!!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD March 27, 2013 at 4:48 pm

Thanks Diane!

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leemari dakota April 10, 2013 at 6:27 pm

Children are naturally picky eaters especially if they know that they have the option to change the food on the table. Start feeding them healthy food as early as you can so that they would be used to it until they grow up.

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Eating For Energy Review June 28, 2013 at 1:24 am

I visit every day some web pages and information sites to read content,
however this blog offers quality based articles.

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Tom Adams September 3, 2013 at 6:35 am

I don’t think you have a good understanding of how motivation works. You don’t suggest anything counterproductive that I can see, but your advice could be much improved if you better understood the dynamics.

I suggest you read Alan Kazdin’s parenting books. He is director of the Yale Parenting Center and 2008 President of the American Psychological Assn. His clinic has repeated helped parents change picky eating for over 30 years.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD September 3, 2013 at 2:45 pm

Tom — thanks for stopping by. I think you misunderstood the intent of my article. I am using motivational theories and applying it to childhood eating. I had a motivational psychologist review this post for me and her research is on how to motivate people toward healthy habits. It was not supposed to be a post about dealing with picky eaters.

From what I can see, Dr. Karzdin deals with improving problematic/defiant childhood behaviors. I have never heard about him specializing in picky eating and I am very well versed on the experts in this area. I’m sure in his books he highlights this in his book but I cannot find anything that shows he an expert or conducts research on picky eaters.

I am running a series right now that might interest you http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/category/picky-eating-series/

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