Confession: I love French fries. I also love fried chicken, hot dogs, cookies, cake, and pie. I don’t like soda any more, but I do like beer. In spite of my age and knowledge about how to eat well, I frequently find myself eating quantities of food that leave me feeling overly filled. And I perversely enjoy that feeling.
Throughout the fathering part of my life, I have tried to be intentional and purposeful about the kinds of behaviors, attitudes and values that I model for my children. My relationship with food is an area of weakness for me. My mother did a pretty good job of putting vegetables on my plate for dinner, but breakfast was often some kind of powdered drink in a pouch that was mixed with milk, or sugary cereal. Lunch was bread with meat and cheese. I don’t remember very much fruit consumption in our house at all.
One thing I will tell you, and this I know for sure: My wife has been a very positive influence on my dietary practices. Before I met her, my idea of a good meal was some boxed Cheeseburger Macaroni by Hamburger Helper, mixed with beef, that I would make and then feed off of for 5 days until it was gone. I would eat meat – not just every day, but every single meal. Fruits weren’t on my radar at all, unless I got myself a raspberry filled donut. Don’t judge me! Those donuts are healthy; they have fruit in them.
My wife has raised my awareness about what I eat, and often serves up meals that are both healthy and tasty; or, if not tasty, at least healthy (lol). This doesn’t mean that I don’t still have my failings, but I am grateful for the fact that I am eating much better than I would be if she hadn’t come into my life. I am also grateful for the way that she has taken charge of how my children eat. There’s hardly a day that goes by when I don’t hear one or both of my children announce that they are hungry (they’re 13 and 14 years old, and continuously ravenous) and then see them come out of the kitchen with some grapes, or an apple or a pear.
For dinner, we are often treated to delicious meals which include kale, broccoli, carrots, onions, and various salads that keep us vitamin-nourished. When it’s my turn to cook, I’ve gotten progressively better at serving up foods that are natural, and look like something you can find in nature.
How did my wife do it? Well, from reading a series of academic studies on how parents can raise children who are more likely to make healthy choices when they are independent, there are two practices that reverberate throughout – you might want to consider these two rules an easy-to-remember guideline for how to do this healthy eating thing right.
Rule #1 – Fill your house with the foods you want your children to eat.
Rule #2 – Eat those same foods yourself.
In my years as a parent, and now my time as a parenting counselor, I’ve heard many variations of a similar complaint. “I just can’t get my child to stop eating potato chips!” My response? “Stop buying potato chips!” Many psychologists who study food choices would discourage you from being too controlling (e.g. using shame or ridicule) with your child when talking about dietary matters. However, controlling the kinds of foods that are purchased and displayed in your house is entirely acceptable. If your child is hungry, and the easiest food to grab is inside a bowl of fruit, you increase the chances that your child will grab some fruit to satisfy his hunger. If, however, there’s a bowl of potato chips on the table, then this is the most convenient choice.
Some parents will respond that, if they stop buying a certain list of products (Pop tarts, Captain Crunch, Cheese doodles), their child will “go ballistic.” You may be concerned that your child will go on a hunger strike until his demands are met. I can see your son outside your house with a picket sign that reads, “Cheese doodles are a human right.”
I can assure you – even if you get some pushback at first, eventually, your child will have to adjust to eating what you have bought. If you are a new parent, take a cue from my wife. She began displaying and buying healthy foods from a very young age, and my children were too young to know that this might be unusual. You can help to set your child’s opinions about what a normal diet looks like from the start, and avoid any potential power struggles that could occur if you decide to change how you do things midstream.
But, let me end on a note of analysis. It’s possible – now hear me out – It’s possible that the resistance you are worried about encountering from your child is really your own resistance to a change toward healthy eating. Don’t be ashamed. If you like Captain Crunch, I want you to stand up right now, lift your hands to the sky, and shout it out to the entire world: “I LIKE CAPTAIN CRUNCH!” There. Doesn’t that feel better? I’ll bet you didn’t actually do it. First of all, you work in a library, so this kind of behavior would be frowned upon. Secondly, it’s a silly thing to proclaim.
Listen – eat what you want, when you want it. I know I won’t be able to refuse French fries and dessert all the time. You want to indulge? Go ahead and indulge. But just keep in mind that your child is taking her cues from you. To the extent that you want your child to grow up eating the foods that the rational side of your brain knows are best, adjust your shopping list accordingly, and then eat the foods you want your child to be eating. In the long run, you’ll be happy you did it.
Suggs, L. S., Della Bella, S., Rangelov, N., & Marques-Vidal, P. (2018). Is it better at home with my family? The effects of people and place on children’s eating behavior. Appetite, 121, 111-118.
Pearson, N., Griffiths, P., Biddle, S. J., Johnston, J. P., & Haycraft, E. (2017). Individual, behavioural and home environmental factors associated with eating behaviours in young adolescents. Appetite, 112, 35-43.
Yates, L., & Warde, A. (2017). Eating together and eating alone: meal arrangements in British households. The British journal of sociology, 68(1), 97-118.
Rogers, C., Anderson, S. E., Dollahite, J. S., Hill, T. F., Holloman, C., Miller, C. K., … & Gunther, C. (2017). Methods and design of a 10-week multi-component family meals intervention: a two group quasi-experimental effectiveness trial. BMC public health, 17(1), 50.
Dr. John D. Rich Jr. is an educational psychologist and associate professor of Psychology at Delaware State University, a retired United Methodist minister, a full-time husband and father of two sons. His articles appear in Psychology Today, and you can hear Dr. John every other Wednesday at 4:30 p.m. on the Matt Connarton Unleashed radio show on WMNH 95.3 FM. Also, check out drjohnrich.com for more info. Got questions? Dr. John will help you navigate. Reach him directly at email@example.com.