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“it’s good for you” won’t help your picky eater

Posted by on Nov 19, 2010 in Blog Posts | 12 comments

So we were at a family reunion of sorts this weekend. Lots of kiddos around. It was amazing how many times the kids, M included were encouraged to eat something because, “it’s good for you!” or, my favorite, “it’s nutritious.” Ice-cream sundae time and M declined (politely) bananas with her vanilla ice-cream and chocolate sauce. After a few exhortations to accept them because they are “nutrititious” the kind server finally gave up. Alas, I felt I had to justify M’s refusal, and remarked that we had bananas at breakfast (we did, but why do I still have to justify? Why do I worry and feel on some level that my kid has to be the poster-child for good nutrition and eating just because I’m the feeding person?)

The point is, kids don’t eat food because it’s good for them, or nutrititous. You can shame the preschooler  into eating something you want them to this time perhaps, but with the little ones especially, hold your tongue, sit on your hands when you feel “it’s good for you” about to come out of your mouth. Kids eat something because it tastes  good to them. They can learn to like even hard-to-like foods, but trying to speed that process along with rational explanations of nutrition is more likely to slow the process. Kids who are especially sensitive to pressure or have been bribed, threatened etc can get turned off even by a simple, “it’s good for you.” (Think about it, when you see a “heart healthy” item on the menu are you more or less likely to order it? Do you assume it won’t taste as good as other choices on the menu? Studies have shown that simply having heart healthy choices on a menu makes adults more likely to chose “unhealthy” options. Maybe it’s the “you should” eat this that is the turn off…)

So, the next time your little one pops a piece of asparagus in her mouth, stay pleasant, you can mention, “Mommy likes asparagus with sauce, would you like some?” Then sit quietly, eat yours and keep her company. She’ll be more likely to try it the next time if you don’t launch into a nutrition lesson.

What do you think?

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  1. Kate

    Katja, this is a little bit off topic, but I just had to share with you. I just got back from visiting friends of mine who have three kids, 8, 5, and 2, and the 5 year old girl is a very picky eater. I had been telling the mom about your site and Ellyn Satter and DOR.

    One night when I was there, I made carnitas and since I fancy myself quite the cook I knew the little girl would like them even though the mom reminded me that she’s very picky. Well, the little girl didn’t like them (the parents do the two bite rule because they did it with their eldest and it worked just fine for them) and my feelings were a little hurt and I really, really wanted to push her try them again, but I didn’t, remembering that you had covered this exact topic, and I sucked it up. Instead I talked about how much I like the tortillas, something she very obviously was enjoying. The mom nudged the little girl to try the meat again, then the little girl said “Don’t yum my yuck, Mommy”. The mom, the dad, and I all agreed with her instantly. So that was a big moment for me and by the transitive property you and I really wanted to share that with you.

    Secondarily, the mom of the family had never had a scale in her house, not growing up, not in college, not ever, until this house and then only because the former owners left it, I don’t think it’s been used. It was quite the contrast to my house where I was weighed daily. I told her when I was dieting I’d weigh several times a day and she was surprised to learn that weight could flucuate so much in one day that weighing that often was in any way useful (which of course it’s not). Guess which of us is fat and which one is not.

    • katja

      Good for you for not pushing her. it is tempting (as you *know* it’s good and she might like it) to push, but this little one doesn’t like the pressure and is letting her adults know. I LOVE “”Don’t yum my yuck, Mommy.” I think I will have to write that one down. Parents try to override kids all the time (natural inclination) as in, “I don’t like cucumbers,” “Sure you do, you picked them out from the store…” Kids don’t like that (adults don’t either for that matter.)
      I wonder if she’s ever at your place without other adults if she might be more adventurous… Sometimes is kids know there is no agenda they can stretch themselves. Nice point about the scale.

      • Kate

        I would have sworn the “don’t yuck my yum” and the equally important “don’t yum my yuck” came from you. But if it didn’t your teachings are 100% in line with it. I really like to see the gospel of DOR spread around.

        • katja

          alas, I cannot take credit. The sentiment is one that I have talked about, she just got it to sound really snappy!

  2. Twistie

    I know that when I was a kid being told ‘it’s good for you’ was enough to stop me eating things I knew I adored simply to demonstrate my control over the situation. If I ate something and found it delicious and then was told ‘you know that’s also good for you because it has x nutrient’ then I was fine. But ‘eat this, it’s healthy for you’ invariably resulted in refusal to eat.

    It’s human instinct to be stubborn and contrary. I don’t know why anyone expects children not to behave like humans.

    Oh, and I have to say, if I’m at Applebee’s I refuse to even look at any menu item with the WW logo on it. It might turn out that one of those meals would be my favorite if I would just look, but I can’t bring myself to support WW that way.

    • katja

      Human instint, and DEVELOPMENTALLY speaking for young children it is their very role. They are trying to separate from mom and dad, and doing the opposite of what parents want them to is a primary means of separation, a normal phase (think trying to get a toddler to brush teeth, put on shoes etc.) We need to help parents understand that allowing the child to bring that power struggle into the feeding relationship will doom you… The Division of Responsibility is how you get through it. I would boycott WW too… I like mixed nut packs for snacks and it kills me that they only sell them in “South Beach Approved” or “heart healthy” packaged. Just give me the darn nuts and spare the lecture!

  3. Jess

    I totally agree– my 3.5. y.o. son is a “good” eater, but he doesn’t eat broccoli because it’s good for him, he eats it because he likes it. If he doesn’t like the taste, pretty much nothing is going to make him want to eat it.

    We have had a couple of conversations about nutrition that usually occur when we’re discussing limits on treats. Occasionally I let him have as much as he wants of some treat (e.g. candy on Halloween or cookies at a snack that includes other things) but usually he has to choose 1 piece of his leftover Halloween candy after dinner or be satisfied with 1-2 cookies for dessert. If he asks why he can’t have more, I generally present this as, “Treats are nice and yummy, but they don’t help kids grow as well as some other foods. If we eat too many treats and not enough of other types of food, our teeth and bones and muscles won’t grow as big and strong. If you’re still hungry, you can have more dinner/an apple/whatever.” Just this morning he said, “This bread is making me grow, Mommy!”

    Unfortunately, I just realized that the teachers at his pre-school require the kids to eat the main part of their lunch (e.g. sandwich or leftovers) before they can have the fun part (in our case, chips, apple sauce or yogurt). For the picky kids, they do the “eat two more bites” thing (I overheard a teacher discussing this with a mom who was doing the daily ‘what did he eat’ inquiry…I bit my tongue!). Generally they’re *wonderful* about fostering independence and overall I adore his teachers… but it’s sad to me that these tired old attitudes toward food and how kids should eat are popping up here.

    • katja

      Sounds like this approach is working for you. I generally caution the “growing food” vs “treat food” approach. Some kids will still get that it’s being restricted and it will heighten interest, and many are not not developmentally ready to understand that message. They will still hear, “good” and “bad,” and some kids (as young as four) will report feeling guilt and shame about eating “forbidden” foods. Kids seem to conflate, “I am bad if I am eating this bad food.”
      I don’t think you even need to go there. As I said, some kids really enjoy the idea of growing big and strong, others will feel that as pressure and will resist. (“Mom must really want me to eat this milk because it makes my bones strong…”) I resist the urge to talk about nutrition (and I have those urges) I just say, “That’s your share” or “we had ice-cream yesterday, today we’re having applesauce for dessert” or whatever it is. Ellyn once said to me when I was explaining how I explained something to M, “You don’t need to talk so much” (basically. ) Just do your jobs with feeding, and let them do theirs with eating. If you’re interested in more (and I’m lazy to write all this down more, follow the link I mentioned for KellyK. I’d love to know what you think.

  4. KellyK

    I think “it’s good for you” actually implies that it’s going to be icky. I mean, if it tasted good, you wouldn’t have to cajole me into eating it, now would you? I’m not real surprised that the “heart healthy options” make people choose the less healthy meal. I see Weight Watchers points on an Applebee’s menu, and my inner five-year-old starts thinking about mozzarella sticks and a chocolate milkshake.

    So, as a random but kinda related question, at what age do you think it is reasonable to start teaching kids about nutrition?

  5. Kristina

    I agree with this completely. When I was growing up the “but it’s good for you” and having the food literally shoved down my throat was the approach used with me. I now have a gag reflex at simply the scent of some of these foods, and others I’m finding out I had intolerances to which is probably why I was avoiding them to start with.

    Positive reinforcement is better than negative reinforcement any day.