During my studies to become a nutritionist, my textbooks on family nutrition always suggested the use of “modeling behavior” to get kids to eat right. Modeling means letting your kids see you eating right.
From my own experience as a mom and as a nutritionist working with families, I have discovered that modeling is only part of the equation. For a start, the list of food skills that kids have to learn for life-long health is surprisingly long. Just to list a few: Learning to try new foods, figuring how much to eat at meals versus snacks, and learning how candy fits in with healthy foods. Another challenge, even for grown-ups, is dealing with a world full of food that looks great but isn’t good for us, and treating food as nutrition rather than as emotional relief.
Modeling healthy food choice behavior, while helpful, is not a magic solution for helping your child learn to eat right for life. I am not suggesting that you give up modeling good food behavior; however, relying on that alone isn’t enough. We need to go beyond modeling.
Modeling puts a lot of strain on parents. Those struggling with their own eating issues may be tempted to give up. Modeling can also become one-dimensional, where you end up teaching only the what, forgetting the where, why, and how much to eat.
One thing I have noticed through working with families in China is that the opportunity to “model” doesn’t present itself that often. Preschool in China typically starts at 18 months. Coupled with the use of grandparents or ayis as frequent caregivers, it means that there are few modeling opportunities in the formative early years – unless everyone is in on the program. Even when the family has weekend time together, it often involves brunches or other food-centric socializing. Finally, negative modeling can occur. Parents and caregivers may inadvertently teach emotional eating by using food to regulate a child’s emotions. For example, when a baby gets fussy or bored, Mom will pull out a container of snacks. Then the child confuses emotional discomfort with hunger. The association of negative emotions and hunger has been studied as a root cause of overeating sweet, salty, and fatty calorie-laden foods.
So what can you do? Sometimes you need to go beyond modeling and do a little active instruction. There is no need for food pyramid charts or healthy plate diagrams. Focus on simple explanations and active teaching, and avoid preaching. If you are not the healthiest eater yourself, be honest with your children about how your own health has suffered and that you too are learning how to eat better.