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little kids don’t understand “nutrition talk”- don’t bother

Posted by on Oct 14, 2011 in Blog Posts | 21 comments

I am so happy I kept a baby journal- a little book on my nightstand that I wrote in every now and then, and still do. M and I were reading it last night together as her 6th birthday approaches. She thought this one was hysterical.

Age 3 1/2…

M ate some ice-cream quickly and she said, “Ow” and put her hands on her head…
Me: M, if you eat ice-cream too fast, you can get an ice-cream headache! Here is a warm noodle, maybe that will help.
M: I don’t want to eat it too fast, then I could get a noodle headache… (said in all seriousness of course.)

It reminded me that efforts at  “nutrition” education are largely wasted and confusing to the preschool set. Save your energy. Many of my clients try to rationalize or explain about protein or sugar grams, and it’s not necessary, and it can mess with the very natural wisdom kids have around food. Think about it, if I describe a meal as “yummy, kind of like the noodles you like, and this is gramma’s favorite” vs. “This soup has buckwheat noodles and is low-fat. It’s good for you!” Which sounds more appealing? (Same soup…)

Kids eat because it tastes good and they are hungry. Their idea of what tastes good changes and expands, and it is our job to provide a variety of choices in a pleasant setting at regular, reliable intervals. Why make that job harder?

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  1. Jess

    Thank you! Our preschool director has a bee in her bonnet about nutrition lately. It started when my 4 y.o. commented that his frozen orange-juice popsicle was full of vitamins and therefore couldn’t be counted as a treat (i.e. he should get something else for dessert). Her other words of wisdom for the kids have included:

    *If you don’t eat the crusts of your bread, your teeth won’t be strong and will fall out (which my son has repeated many, many times– thankfully, he ate his crusts before and eats them still, despite the nonsense).

    *You can’t eat dessert (which, since the kids can’t bring candy or cookies to school, “dessert” is almost always a piece of fruit or apple sauce) until you’ve eaten your “main dish” (sandwich or whatever)

    *You can’t eat two desserts (again, we’re talking about pieces of fruit here!)

    The lack of DoR at lunch with the kids really irks me the most– they totally pressure the kids who eat little into eating more and they encourage the hearty eaters to eat less; one Mom sends fiber bars to school with her son b/c he has a constipation problem and they get sent back with the message that it’s “too much food” (since it’s in addition to sandwich and a piece of fruit).

    She’s also outlawed cupcakes/cake for birthdays– instead we’re supposed to bring a communal lunch (for 25 preschoolers!) because she says the sugar winds up the kids, too much (which, studies have shown, is not actually true). Meanwhile, when *she* sees fit to give the kids a treat (e.g. nutella on bread for snack, which happens once or twice a month) it’s fine. I’m sensing it’s a control issue w/ her, as much as it is about nutrition…

    • katja

      Crazy. It is upsetting. it is so manipulative, and plain out lying to kids (as in not eating crusts will make your teeth fall out.) Why is it OK to lie to kids about food? I bet if she wouldn’t manipulate and lie about other things. Definitely about control. It is so not helpful, but I think is very common.

      • Jess

        The thing is, her heart is *totally* in the right place. She is a wonderful preschool teacher & director: loving, enthusiastic, energetic, always going above and beyond. I feel bad about my strong words yesterday– I was in a fit of pique! But there is simply *SO* much misinformation about food and nutrition out there, particularly in regards to children (as you know, since it’s what this whole blog is about :-). She really is trying to do the best for the kids (as are many other well meaning folks who try to put toddlers on diets, restrict sweets, bribe picky eaters, etc.).

        • katja

          It is tough. I think she would be sad to know that she is doing more harm than good. I know I did. You aren’t in the twin cities, are you? I would be happy to talk with her or do a staff training. At there are some childcare guidelines. Have you read my post where I put the laminated card in M’s lunch (since about age 3) that says to let her open her lunch and then leave her alone? She is hurting these kids. Perhaps sharing a handout or two? The DoR is used by headstart, WIC, is endorsed by ADA as best practice…

  2. Amber

    I heard this public service announcement a few years ago during Halloween time. All I can remember is the girl doing this PSA was a star of a Disney Channel show, and she was making comments along the lines of “Halloween candy is bad for you and will make you gain weight! How about a nice apple, but never a candied apple!” I can’t remember the exact words she used, but around that time I noticed commercials about “Healthy diets” ( portion control, eating only veggies for lunch, drinking loads of water) were being shown on the Disney Channel.

  3. Amber

    I have a feeling the next time I step into the local supermarket I’ll be hearing Miley Cyrus (or other Disney icons of this day) over the intercom ranting how fattening Halloween candy is in a PSA. I think I’ll spend the extra money and take the longer walk to the smaller health food store where I can buy my organic cheesecake without Disney icons ranting about “bad food” in the intercom PSAs. However, I wonder about how these parents with kids handle these supermarket PSAs when they want to buy a treat, but the kid hears Hannah Montanna ranting about “Halloween candy is bad for you and will make you gain weight! How about a nice apple, but never a candied apple!”

  4. Kirsten

    This post eminds me so much of being a member of Weight Watchers (the first time) at the age of 9. This was WW circa 1981, so it was based on the principals of Food Exchanges and portion control (and really super disgusting WW products that they really tried to get you to invest in because it was “better” (for them, dare I say), but that’s another post).

    I remember sitting there during the lecture after weigh in, and just NOT getting how corn, cereal, popcorn, milk, potatoes, bananas, pretzels, ice cream, apples, oranges etc……were all ‘a bread’. Nobody bothered to explain to me that when they said bread, they actually meant carbohydrate. If they’d explained it as carbohydrates = energy, protein = building blocks, etc I’d have understood that and been able to follow what I was supposed to be doing to succeed (eyeroll), because even at 9 I was pretty switched on.

    I have never understood this human need to use colloquialisms and word replacements when the actual word itself is perfectly fine–in this discussion I’ll just say that if it’s a potato, just call it a potato or at the very least refer to it as a vegetable. Simplify, especially when talking to kids.

    Slightly OT, but it was the same with weighing and measuring of foods. Just as an example: 1/2 cup strawberries vs 1/4 cup peanut butter. The peanut butter you’re meant to squish it into the measuring cup so that it takes up all the space to get a proper 1/4 cup measurement. But the strawberries? No, you just pile them in until they reach the brim. I was always preoccupied with the space between the berries and thinking that I was not exactly getting a full 1/2 cup of actual strawberries, that it was probably closer to 1/3 cup of strawberries and a partial serving of…..air.

    This seemed perfectly rational to me. So, I asked my mom to squish the berries in, so that I’d get my full serve. I clearly recall her exassperation and hurried explanation that if she did that, it would mean I was eating too much of it and would count as more than one serve (and the world would end? life as we know would have ceased? OMG, I’d maybe not lose any weight that week?? so many horrific results might have happened)–which made NO SENSE TO ME AT ALL. In my mind, it was all still contained in the 1/2 measuring cup, under the brim, right? How was it different to the measuring of the PB?
    Enter feeling of deprivation, and watch the wonder of the secret binge unfold itself.

    (btw I still feel this way, and now only weight non-liquid items by weight rather than bulk space).

    Sorry, didn’t mean to hijack the comments! But I just love your site and your blog posts–they bring so much of my past weight-based turmoil to the surface for me to work through and process, and I find it so freeing to be able to discuss it in a place where other people (and not just other non-thin people either) understand and don’t try to spin it to be something it’s not.

    Thank you for taking your time to maintain this site and providing your knowledge and expertise. Discovering this site has been a godsend for me, and I have referred many people here!


    • Emgee

      Oh, sister of a different mother! I was about that same age when I was put on my first diet. Only my first was “the grapefruit diet”–no dairy, fruit (except for grapefruit or bread, just meat, eggs, fat and salad. Sooo healthy for a growing girl. I remember my mom’s friend suggesting Weight Watchers for me, and mom saying, “She doesn’t need that, she can lose it ON HER OWN.” Meaning if I didn’t, it was my fault. Of course, as an adult I went to wW, ending up with Lifetime Member status…and eventually all the weight back, plus. You sound like you belonged in the good ol’, bad ol’ days when you had to limit your carrots because “they are FULL of sugar.” Sheesh. Anyway, thanks for sharing, I feel your pain.

    • E

      I was given a delightful little calorie counting book at that age, so I could, I guess, be independent with my self-destruction.

    • Kate

      I don’t know when I started dieting exactly, probably in utero, but I distinctly remember being on Atkins in kindergarten. But they didn’t want to put a lot of effort into it either, so I ate A LOT of bologna and cheese slices. Yuck.

      My parents chose Atkins for me because my dad wanted to diet too, and he could still drink on Atkins, but he went out for lunch every day with his co-workers and still ate what he wanted, but not me. Until, of course, I couldn’t stand it anymore and went to great lengths to get sugar. I never shoplifted (though I probably would have tried if I thought I could get away with it) but I did take food from friend’s houses. At times I hated myself for not being stronger and at other times I was thrilled at how frustrated my parents would get because I wasn’t losing weight.

    • katja

      Thanks Kirsten! I love your comments. makes perfect sense what you were doing! I appreciate your kind words…

    • Nobody'sGirl

      Oh my…when you wrote “WW circa 1981” I read “1918” and assumed you were talking about dieting throught World War I.

  5. Ellie

    Yeah, I consider myself a lifelong nutrition nerd, and I still remember being a kid and just Not Getting It. (For example, around age 9 I took a test to try to qualify for the 4-H Foods and Nutrition Quiz Bowl Team. One of the questions was, “Name a disease that can result from not following the USDA Food Guide Pyramid.” Presumably they were looking for heart disease or hypertension or some similarly propaganda-ish sound byte. I thought long and hard and wrote, “Scurvy.”)

    • katja

      Oh, bless your little you, Ellie! I love that! Alas, kids nowadays are so pumped up with fear. Did you ever see the essay portion from the 4th graders on the wellness section? here is the outtake:
      From st paul 4th grade essays…

      children might get addicted to sugar. Then whenever they see sugar they might think they need to get some. They might get crazy from too much sugar

      It can also cause children to lose their self-esteem because they might think they are too overweight.We need to help overweight people loose weight.

      I know that the bad foods taste so good. But we have to worry about us kids being healthy.

      It decreases diabetes when kids start making better choices.

      At school right now I think I haven’t got enough exercise at recess. I am a really slow eater and I am always the last one in the lunchroom so when I get outside, we are already going inside. Sadly our recess just got bumped down a lot and maybe with the Wellness Policy it might get bumped up again. I doubt that will happen.

      If you are obese and want to start losing weight then you could start eating healthier foods.

      If you eat too much sugar then you can get diabetes and you would have to inject insulin into yourself.

      I think it is a good thing that kids shouldn’t eat junk because if they eat too much people would say mean things about their body or how they look.

      They could probably die. That would make their family or friends sad. They could get diabetes and if they do, their mom or dad might not have money to pay for their medical bill.

      You would be ahead of everyone that was making fun of you. But don’t eat it everyday, because then you are back to what you were before.

      If you eat healthy foods your teeth won’t rot and you won’t have to have surgery or have steel rods put into your body.

      You won’t get as many colds and flues

      Maybe you think the school shouldn’t control what you eat but you can just stuff your selves with junk when you get home; the only person you’ll be hurting is yourself. I hope you appreciate the maybe dumb sounding rules more now. I sure do!

      don’t think they get it either, but they are being coached much more effectively! What makes me so sad is the assumption that stocky, fat, or anything but skinny means you eat too much junk, and it’s your fault. Notice the comments about teasing? Blaming the child. Huge red flags here…

      • erylin

        “Maybe you think the school shouldn’t control what you eat but you can just stuff your selves with junk when you get home; the only person you’ll be hurting is yourself.” this is the hate now being TAUGHT as a writing exersize in school. no wonder 8 yr olds are getting Eating disorders. if i had been growing up now i think i would have succeeded in killing myself.

        • katja

          I know. It is horrific. How can we act on this? I have reached out to PACER anti-bullying with no response… These comments show sanctioned bullying. Why were these posted online and not dealt with immediately?? I don’t know where to take this… I am up at nights thinking about this stuff sometimes…

          • Jennifer Hansen

            I just had a thought specific to the U.S. If we brought our people home from the multiple wars, and used the money being poured into open graves overseas to fuel a new New Deal that got people working so that they could spend money at local businesses that would then be able to hire more people and so forth and also to enact single-payer health care so that nobody (Jesus wept!) ever has to face the prospect of dying for lack of money, and if we started taxing our rich back at the level where they used to be taxed . . . if we quit impoverishing the middle class and trampling on the poor . . . would we not need fat scapegoats anymore? Would the officially sanctioned bullying slack off?

  6. AmandaL

    Have you heard about the YMCA’s big push for “healthy kids”? I think it’s a direct result of the Michelle Obama campaign, and it is truly frightening how intense it is. No chocolate. No cupcakes on birthdays. Maybe vanilla pudding, but only if you say you didn’t know. It’s unbelievably harsh. Then I ask my little guy what he gets for snack, and it’s pretzels and water, or crackers and water. Nothing with protein to tide him through. Seems really dangerous to me, after reading Child of Mine Secrets, and learning more about DoR. They actually talk about foods being “good” and “bad”.