At the start of a new year, many parents announce they are going to do a better job restricting their kids’ intake of sugar, because they’ve been too permissive. No more soda, sugary cereal or ice cream in the house, they declare. Instead, it will be all vegetables all the time.
Does restriction actually work? No.
Restricting food doesn’t create healthful eating habits. In fact, it usually backfires, steering children to sneak food and overeat.
In her book, “It’s Not About the Broccoli,” Dina Rose writes about the danger of having a “nutrition mind-set” when parents focus too intently on the nutrients or amount of sugar their kids consume daily, rather than looking at the long view of teaching their children to eat a variety of foods in moderation.
Studies show that if you pressure your child to eat less or you restrict their food intake, they eat more, especially sweets, whenever they have the chance. Your goal as a parent isn’t to restrict sugar today, but to teach your children how to navigate a world with tempting foods, how to eat enough but not too much, how to try new foods without fear, and how to enjoy a variety of foods.
Instead of teaching your kids to trust your instincts, teach kids to listen to their own hunger cues and let them decide how much to eat based on those cues. They will make some mistakes and overeat, but mistakes help children learn.
Make 2018 the year to rethink your approach to restricting food:
1. Adopt Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility” where parents decide what, when and where food is served, and children decide how much and whether they eat these foods.
2. Designate meal and snack times so that eating has structure.
3. If you and your child are at war over food, you remove the conflict. Stop restricting, at least temporarily. Allow sugary foods into the house (with some structure, of course). As you ease up and assure your child that you are no longer trying to control them, they will back down from their own fight.
4. Give your children some control, such as what to pack in their lunch, how much of a certain food they will put on their plate and eat, next week’s dinner menu, and which snacks you will buy.
5. Designate a drawer in the house for sweets, decide how many times a day or week your family indulges in these sweets, and then give your kids the choice as to what to have and when. If the food is in the house, and kids know they can have some, they won’t feel as desperate to gorge. (Remember, the goal isn’t to prevent your child from ever eating sugar, it is to teach them to eat it in moderation.)
6. Tell your kids about your new plans, that you will stop trying to control their food intake because you want to help them learn to listen to their bodies.