When it comes to letting children make their own choices, what do you think is reasonable?
I was chatting with another grandmother the other day about what seems to be a common trend with new parents: that is, treating their children as if they were mini adults and allowing them to make choices for themselves about pretty much everything, regardless of whether they are 10 months old or 10 years old. Some examples of this include letting children decide how much television they want to watch, when they want to go to bed, what and when they want to eat (e.g., letting them eat all their meals from a fast-food joint or graze on chips and pop all day), and so on.
This is a philosophical debate – one that would probably generate many different opinions. I am certainly no expert on the topic but, like most people, I too have my own opinion, especially when it comes to food choices and children.
In a nutshell, I believe that choices should be offered whenever possible. However, it is important that I qualify that statement. By choices, I mean give children a choice between two or three healthy options, not just whatever the child says he or she wants to eat.
For example, when it comes to breakfast, two or three choices (out of many that would be reasonable) are oatmeal and berries, eggs with veggies and wholegrain bread, or plain yogurt with fruit and nuts. “Those are your choices - which would you like this morning?”
On the other hand, simply asking a young child, “What would you like for breakfast?” leaves you open to a response such as, “I want a bowl of sugary, chocolate-coated cereals” or “I want cookies” or “I want to go to ‘McWrong-alds’ for a breakfast meal.”
Indulging a child with an open-ended question about what they want to eat seems unreasonable to me. Unreasonable because it is unfair to expect a young child to know what is best for them to eat, especially when given the choice and knowing no better, most children are going to choose the sugary, fatty, refined foods every time – unless, of course, they have always eaten whole foods and the child knows no different.
In my experience, this includes a fairly small segment of families in the western population today, although I did recently see a young boy of about three years old choose raw broccoli over jelly beans and chocolate at a wedding. I know, it is pretty impressive but since this child had never had any junk foods, it’s not really surprising.
As parents, we are responsible for setting our children up for life when it comes to their eating habits – for better or worse.
It begins from the time we start feeding them solid food. If we feed our children healthy options, but eat a lot of unhealthy foods ourselves, then by the time our children become toddlers and see us eating something different from them, they are going to want those foods too – children learn what they live! Therefore, it is really important to understand that, as parents, we have a responsibility to role model healthy eating habits to children.
At the end of the day, one has to ask, “Who is buying the refined, processed packaged food - the cookies, the sugary cereals the popsicles, the chemically-processed, additive-laden hot dogs, etc.?” Well, it is not usually the three year old or the nine year old! In fact, in the formative years, most children can quite literally only eat what is put in front of them by their parents/caregivers until the child is off to school where there is, admittedly, opportunity for learning bad habits from what’s in their peers’ lunch boxes or, sometimes, from a poor diet in some (not all) school cafeterias and, even worse, from vending machines full of pop and candies.
Furthermore, isn’t it true that until a child is out on their own, earning their own money, a parent has a lot of power in ensuring that the child eats a variety of foods including mostly healthy options. I realize from personal experience that it can be challenging when you have a picky eater. That said, is there really an excuse for purchasing only what your nine year old demands when it comes to food – especially when they are clearly making unhealthy choices?
Taking this argument to an extreme, should we allow our children to walk on the edge of the highway or stick a pencil in an electric socket just because they ‘choose’ to do so? Of course not! It would be totally inappropriate, even negligent, to allow our children to choose to do such things. By the same token, we should probably feel the same way about allowing our child to make food choices that do not serve their best interests.
Again, I do not profess to be an expert on this, but believe that we can still show the utmost respect for a child and their unique preferences and individuality without risking compromising their health in the process.
So, how can we encourage autonomy while ensuring a healthy diet? If you want to make some effective changes in your family’s eating habits, especially if you have a child who is already an established junk food eater, then do not expect it to be easy at first. As already mentioned, we humans will choose fatty, salty, and sugary just about every time when left to our own devices.
The first thing is to not beat yourself up that you may have inadvertently created a poor eater. We parents can only do the best that we know at any given time in our lives (and how I wish I had some of the knowledge I have now back when my children were young!) and we can’t be experts on all areas of child rearing. The vast majority of us only want our children to be happy and it is often through the best intentions that we make the mistakes of over-indulgence when it comes to feeding our precious offspring. So, the first thing you need to do is forgive yourself.
The second thing is to get all of the child’s other caregivers involved and on your side. For example, if you have a spouse/partner, explain your concerns and the changes you wish to make. Get the grandparents on side too since they can sometimes be the biggest culprits when it comes to ‘spoiling’ the child with treats.
Thirdly, make sure that you role model the desired changes yourself. You cannot expect your child to eat broccoli and beans while you dig into hot dog and fries! Also, know that it is never too late to change, however, expect that you may have cranky children (and partners!) on your hands for the first few days – depending on their ages and reasoning skills.
Fourthly, depending on the child’s age, talk to them about it too. Let them know that the whole family is going to start eating for health and energy, which will mean that you will not be purchasing some of the less healthy foods anymore.
Fifth, enlist the help of a nutritional professional (or purchase a good book on the topic).
Remember that every single food product that your child may be addicted to will have a healthier version. For example, if french fries are what they ask for, you can substitute baked sweet potatoes (or a blend of white and sweet).
Simply pre-heat the oven to 350. Scrub the potato. Slice or cut into wedges, baste with a little olive oil and sprinkle with basil (optional), cook for 15 minutes before turning over and cooking for a further 15 – everyone will love them.
If they love sugary cereals, you can encourage them to help make your own crunchy version by mixing rolled oats with sunflower and pumpkin seeds, chopped dried fruit and fresh fruit, etc.
Getting everyone involved with food preparation is the quickest way to get a buy-in from the family.
Finally, don’t get overwhelmed – get excited. Remember, it is never too late for anyone to start eating healthier!
In children’s good health – until next time. Written by Jane Claxton-Oldfield. MDN Jane is an instructor for the Canadian School of Natural Nutrition Moncton branch. Email your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.