Heffner column: Children’s acceptance of healthy foods
Columns share an author’s personal perspective.
Like so many other traditions it appears that Halloween will be observed differently, if at all, in this year of the pandemic. Not likely that children will go from door to door trick or treating. One mother told me the big event in their household was her daughter winning the school prize for best Halloween costume. Something from tradition preserved!
With schools functioning on reduced schedules, if at all, children are also missing out on school lunches, which unfortunately for many children was their main source of nutrition. Controversy had also raged over the nature of these lunches, which had moved from previous attempts at providing fruits and vegetables back to children’s favorites like hot dogs and French fries.
In the past, both schools and parents have been criticized for not preparing new foods in tasty, attractive ways that might tempt children. In an older generation, children were expected to eat what was set before them while parents today have resorted to serving children only what they like. The point being made that children’s acceptance of healthy food begins with what they are served and what is available to them at home.
Children’s resistance to “healthy” food is an old story - especially vegetables. Parents have reported forever about the difficulty not only in getting their children to eat vegetables, but also in getting them to try anything new generally.
Another familiar story is that of children refusing any variety in the food they would eat. Many parents speak of their frustration over children eating only one thing for long periods of time. Most often it is pasta, or peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Sometimes parents feel triumphant when a child will eat a chicken nugget. Parents know that children need repeated exposure to a new food before even being willing to taste it, much less accept eating it. They describe children pushing something new off the plate or rejecting all the food on the plate if something new is added.
Despite all that parents have heard about children’s obesity, many parents are more concerned about both the lack of variety in what their children will eat and whether they are eating enough. Feeding ones’ children adequately is very much tied in with the need to feel successful as a mother. Mothers make food that they know children will eat.
In some ways, though, this issue may be part of the larger question that has been raised about parental authority, and the feeling many parents have that their children rather than they themselves are in charge. The expectation of an older generation that children eat “what is set before them” is not that different from other parental expectations that have undergone generational changes. These days, it seems that it is the children who expect greater freedom in many areas and parents often express concern about how to deal with that expectation.
When it comes to introducing new foods we don’t have to be intimidated by our children’s protest, sounds of disgust or other ways in which they show their rejection. Without going on a crusade to insist that children try something - “just taste it” - or bribing, nagging, withholding dessert as a condition, a new food can continue to be put out without further comment. It will begin to look familiar to a child after a while, which can often lead to a taste - when no one is looking.
Children love to hear the same story over and over again. They may not love the sound of our voice, but communicating our expectations requires the same need for repetition.
Elaine Heffner, LCSW, Ed.D., has written for Parents Magazine, Fox.com, Redbook, Disney online and PBS Parents, as well as other publications. She has appeared on PBS, ABC, Fox TV and other networks. Dr. Heffner is the author of “Goodenoughmothering: The Best of the Blog,” as well as “Mothering: The Emotional Experience of Motherhood after Freud and Feminism.” She is a psychotherapist and parent educator in private practice, as well as a senior lecturer of education in psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medical College. Dr. Heffner was a co-founder and served as director of the Nursery School Treatment Center at Payne Whitney Clinic, New York Hospital. And she blogs at goodenoughmothering.com.