Conventional wisdom has taught us that children have to be told to eat their meals before they can have dessert. Instead of teaching children healthy eating habits, however, I believe this rule can actually foster an unhealthy relationship with food, and creates potential conflict where none needs to exist.
Sweets Should Not Be A Reward; Healthy Food Is Not A Chore
Making children eat their healthy food before they can have their sweets causes them to view sweets as a reward, and healthy foods as a chore–a burdensome task that has to be undertaken before they can have what they really want.
When my siblings and I were children, my parents required us to eat all the food on our plates before we could have dessert or leave the table. Numerous times, my more stubborn brothers would sit at the table for hours after the meal had ended, simply to prove that nobody could force them to eat vegetables. And to what end? Those hours didn’t make my brothers love or value vegetables any more.
Many parents enforce a similar “clean your plate” rule or a rule where their child has to eat a certain number of bites of [meat, vegetables, fish, etc.] before they can move on to dessert. However, I believe such rules do little to ingrain healthy eating habits, and in fact may create unhealthy ones. Eating vegetables, meat, fish, and grains becomes a chore.
Of course, these rules are made with the best of intentions. We want our children to be nourished, and we want them to learn to eat sugar in moderation. But when children learn to view sweets as a reward, eating them activates feelings of happiness and pride. In this way, sweets become a “comfort food” as children grow into teenagers and adults–precisely the opposite of how we want our children to feel.
Make Food A Choice
At school, we allow the children to choose how to eat their lunch. The food in their lunchbox is all theirs, and they can eat as much or as little as they wish, in whatever order they wish.
I know many parents don’t like the idea of their child eating only their sweets at lunchtime, and leaving the rest of their lunch untouched. But the solution is simple: parents should only pack food that they would want their children to eat. After a morning filled with fun activities and plenty of outdoor time, children are hungry and do not often need encouragement to eat their lunches. Even without treats as a reward, many children finish all or most of the food that is packed for them.
At home, it can be a little trickier to get the child to eat healthy foods if she knows that there are treats in the cupboard and freezer. But again there is a simple solution: fill the pantry and refrigerator only with food that you would be comfortable with our children eating. If the children ask, allow them to look through the cupboards for cookies and candy. Finding none, they will realize that sweets are not an option and they will have to choose from the options that are available, such as the healthy meal you provided, or, if you are ok with it, another healthy option from the pantry or refrigerator.
Allowing a child to choose from a selection of foods that we define empowers the child. An empowered child is less likely to engage in power struggles. And when mealtime ceases to be a power struggle, not only will mealtimes be more pleasant, but children will be more likely to make healthy, balanced choices.