Fostering healthy eating habits

There was a short piece on the Wall Street Journal blog today called "How to Have the 'Happy Meal' Talk,"  in which the author considered how to tell his five-year-old twin sons why they would not be eating at McDonald's, that magical place where "they give you a toy with your food."

The Dad/author considered a number of strategies and evaluated their efficacy:

  • Saying, as his wife suggested, "it’s poison and you must never go there."
    • Problem: (You can fill in the blank here, I imagine)

  • Describing the problem of feedlots and factory farms
    • Problem: Too scary for five-year olds? 

  • Michael Pollan's suggestion: teach kids about the marketing itself, explaining why the healthiest foods tend not be adorned with pictures of cartoon characters.
    • Problem: Too complicated?

  • Just say “No, we’re not going to McDonald’s.”
    • Problem: Elevates fast food to an unattainable treat that makes kids want it even more.

  • Tell kids how healthier foods do more to make them grow strong.
    • Problem: Some kids don't care

  •  Reward healthy meals with toys
    •  Problem: “Research shows that bribing or rewarding kids for eating their vegetables can actually decrease children’s preference for these foods,” says Donna Pincus, director of Boston University’s child and adolescent fear and anxiety treatment program and author of “Growing up Brave.”

  • The "Green Eggs and Ham" strategy. Keep asking and offering healthy options, over and over again.
    • Problem: Can be exhausting and frustrating. But remains the ultimate strategy suggested by psychologists to divert attention and create longlasting healthy preferences.
I think it's really interesting to consider this question of how to foster good eating habits in children.

(Not all the commenters on the WSJ post agree with me. As one of them wrote, "I just rolled my eyes so hard they almost fell out of my head.")

Although I don't yet have children, when I imagine how I'll feed and raise my future potential kids, I'd like to bring the same intentionality to their diets that I bring to my own. And yet, so many of the reasons that inform my own dietary practices are the result of many years of exposure and education. How to convey the same ideas and priorities to little kids, who don't have that deep foundation?

I'd like to think that, ultimately, offering a strong model is the primary way that we foster good habits (in all realms, not just food). Kids soak up the world and practices around them. If we don't eat at McDonald's, our children will likely rarely do so. If they go with a friend a time or two, they may like the hamburger (I loved the thin pickles and minced onions and American cheese when I was a kid. You didn't hear this from me, but there may even be photos of my 8th birthday at the local McDonald's floating around somewhere...), but it certainly won't become a regular part of their diets.

What do you all think?

How have you (or might you) cultivate good habits in those in your sphere of influence? 


  1. I agree with where you land on this, but wanted to add something from my own past that oyur post made me think of. We would occasionally eat at McDonald's or Burger King (it was a rarity, and therefore something of a treat). I can remember one occasion when my mother took me to a fast food place at the mall for lunch amid a shopping excursion. I always had the same thing: a hamburger, fries, and milk (soda was pretty much verboten in the house when I was little, and I only had it beginning in middle school). My mother always had me eat the hamburger before the fries, so that I wouldn't fill up on empty calories. I remember her admonishing me to do this on that particular occasion, sitting on the hard plastic seats of the fast food place at Crossgates Mall, and I complied. I remember we had a conversation about why she gave me this advice, and I understood it to be sensible. To this day, whenever I have a hamburger, I always finish it before the fries. While as an adult I will move back and forth between the two, I never finish the fries before the burger. It is definitely the result of this training as a child: I totally internalized the notion that you eat the filling or nutritious stuff first, and then can indulge in other pleasures. To eat fries first is like having dessert first to me!

    Anyway, a strange way of saying that small healthy eating lessons can happen, even at McDonald's.

    1. I love this story, shazam, though it seems to me that most folks finish all the hamburger *and* all the fries, so all those calories just end up in the same place. But I do love the image of your mom teaching you a lesson on nutrition at the mall food court. :)

  2. I'm sure you're probably right! But I figured you would appreciate this tale of food education in an unlikely place. Seriously, I think about this in a conscious way very, very often. It's amazing what sticks with you from childhood.


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