Growing up, my house didn’t have snack foods like chips or cookies. They weren’t necessarily forbidden foods, but they weren’t something that was in my pantry. I remember when I’d go to slumber parties as a teenager, I’d be pretty excited if there were chips. I still can remember that excitement about having these snack foods without my parents around and I typically would eat a lot of them. Yes, chips are quite tasty, but they also had more value to me because they were limited in my world. Recently, I wrote about 3 things parents can do to promote positive nutrition and healthy relationships with food at home — Focus on Family Meals, Practice Basic Meal Planning and Offer a Variety of Foods. I’ve been thinking over the last couple of weeks about elaborating on the concept of variety and the complexities of variety when feeding children.
“Clean eating” and diet culture have created fear around feeding children certain foods. Variety is important so children learn to eat and accept different foods, but also so they have neutral experiences with all types of foods, not just foods we think of as “healthy.”
Variety may seem simple. Different foods give us different nutrients. If we eat a variety of different foods, we get the variety of nutrients that complement each other and meet our complex needs. Typically, when dietitians talk about variety they talk about variety within a food group. For example, offering all different fruits to your family throughout the week — apples, oranges, grapes, kiwi, bananas. If we only eat apples we get the vitamins and minerals in apples, but if we eat different fruits we get nutrients in apples and oranges and grapes and kiwis. Variety can also be discussed as variety between the different food groups and we dietitians often like to talk about this as “balance.” We need foods from different food groups – fruits, vegetables, grains, protein, dairy, and dietary fats. Each food group gives us different nutrients that our bodies need. If we only ate one or two food groups we’d miss out on the nutrients that are in the other groups.
When feeding children, the act of offering is the important part, we can’t make our children eat a variety. As parents, it’s our job to decide what is served so that the child has experience with different foods. We are both modeling variety and balance to them and also giving them experiences with different foods so they may grow to like them and eat a variety. It’s very common for a child not necessarily to eat a big variety at a meal or even over a weeks time. However, if we continue to offer a variety of foods, over time, they will learn to eat different foods. It’s hard, but I try to not remember what one child eats or what the other child doesn’t. As I said in the previous post, I serve them what I want them to learn to eat, not necessarily what they eat now.
Another important concept about variety is offering all types of foods, not just the ones we think of as “healthy.” When I talk about family feeding I’m not only focused on what is offered to children, but probably more concerned with HOW children are fed. If we only focus on the hard science of nutrition, we are missing the complexities of food and how psychology, emotions, and behavior fit in.
Many adults understand the nutrition of variety but there is also an important psychological aspect of offering our children a variety of different types of foods. Studies back up my own experience as a teenager. Research shows us that adolescents that are not offered “highly palatable” foods at home are more likely to eat these foods when their parents are not around and in the absence of hunger (1). What is a “highly palatable food’? These are processed foods that have been engineered for our taste buds to really like them, typically higher fat, higher sugar, and/or quite salty foods. In this study, adolescents were offered a variety of snack foods. The adolescents that did not have these foods at home, ate more than the adolescents that were offered these foods regularly at home and were more likely to eat them when they weren’t hungry.
When something is forbidden or scarce, it is human nature to want it more. Forbidden items have more value to us. This has been shown time and time again in psychology research with non-food objects. Many of these foods inherently have a high value to us because they taste really good and our brains are designed to want higher fat, higher sugar, and higher sodium foods. However, we don’t want to give them more value by making them forbidden. There needs to be a balance in feeding of modeling that the base of our nutrition can be whole foods, but desserts and snack foods can be a part of our overall intake. It is actually healthy to make a choice to offer your family this variety so that foods are not forbidden and your child learns to have a healthy relationship with these foods.
Every family may approach this differently and may have a different comfort level with this. At my house, this means we put a cookie or other dessert in our kids lunch boxes and/or have a dessert with our supper. We actually keep potato chips in the cupboard as a staple (which may be a reaction to my childhood!) I also strive to not make comments about the nutritional value of certain foods, as this can be a form of pressure or restriction. Children learn about what foods we need more of by our modeling, rather than our words. Another way to try to strike this variety balance may be to ask your older child what foods they would like to have for snacks at home or for family dinners. As a child gets older, this input can be helpful so it doesn’t feel like mom or dad are in charge of all of the food. This prepares them for when they are an older teenager and may be able to purchase their own food with friends.
Our children need to experience eating all different kinds of foods that they will come into contact with in the world, outside of our homes. These experiences at home will help them learn and grow and not give the food too much power.
- Fisher JO, Birch LL; Restricting Access to Foods and Children’s Eating. Appetite. 1999; Vol 32:3, 405-419.
- Birch LL, Davison KK, Fisher JO. Learning to Overeat: Maternal use of restrictive practices promotes girls’ eating in the absence of hunger. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;78:215-220.