Friday, 31 July 2009

Peer pressure and food choices for young children.

By Julie,
Towards Sustainability

When my children were very little it was easy to control what foods they ate, after all I was in charge of putting it on their plates. But as they get older, and particularly, after starting grade school, they are becoming increasingly aware of the difference between what they eat, and what most of the other kids do.

I am lucky that my eldest daughter (aged seven) isn't particularly interested in what other kids are eating, but my extremely sweet-toothed five year old, on the other hand, started school this year and is intensely aware of the contents of everyone else's lunchbox and what they buy at the canteen! The inevitable pressure to let her eat or buy whatever everyone else is eating is relentless - I'm sure almost everyone who has had anything to do with kids knows what I am talking about :-)

We often talk at home about what are good food choices and we regularly make homemade versions of takeaway foods like pizzas and hamburgers. I am also fortunate that they love nuts, fruit and vegetables so I know that 99% of the time, they are heating healthy choices but it got so that if we were visiting friends or at a party, my girls would literally sit over a bowl of sweets or crisps, devouring them until they were gone! A tad embarrassing for me, shall we say ;-)

After some consideration - and the knowledge that for better or worse, we live within a circle of people with different eating styles to us - last year we introduced the concept of "treat day" at home. Simply, the girls take turns every Thursday in picking what they will have for afternoon tea after school/ preschool, which can be (within reason) anything they like.

I try to steer them (gently) in the direction of foods which aren't quite so bad - and I won't buy anything packed full of trans fats for example - but iced donuts are a perennial favourite LOL. Within these constraints, I also try to buy items which minimise packaging for example and I'll explain to the girls why a slightly different item may be a better choice. Sometimes the 'treat' for my older girls might be lunch order at the school canteen, where a white bread sandwich - like everyone elses - is a treat at the moment!

So far, this strategy has worked really well for us. I also have an 'out' when we are out and about and the girls start asking for a lollipop or packet of chips - it's not treat day! It doesn't stop all of the whining unfortunately, but they know I won't cave in, so it's not worth too much effort :-)

I know that as they get older, have more pocket money to spend and greater access to shops, it will inevitably be spent on 'junk' food, but I have my fingers crossed that this strategy might encourage them to consider saving their money for more worthwhile purchases.

What about you? Do you have a strategy which works well for your family to share with us?


Threads of Light said...

My strategy over the years has simply been to provide the healthiest food I can at home, while allowing the children to choose for themselves when out.
In our home we don't have any white flour, chocolate or sugar, and we have very few pre-packaged foods.

I've always controlled how much my children have been allowed to spend at the school canteen, but I'm fine with them making themselves sick (within reason) at parties! It's been a learning experience not to be missed when a child comes to you saying they wished they'd chosen differently and now they want to eat healthily.

The most important thing to me is making sure each child feels that they have an element of freedom of choice, devoid of negative judgment from their parents.

I can't emphasize enough how powerful this is! My older children (17 and 19) are now well balanced with what foods they choose. They enjoy a bit of junk now and then, but the foods they love best are the healthy natural foods they are used to getting at home.

Robin said...

I only grocery shop once per month, and my 3 children think long and hard about what treat they choose when we make a trip. I don't make any comment about what they choose, but there has been more than one instance when when they have regretted eating too much sugary junk.

simple happiness said...

Great thread idea Julie!!

Luckily our school has a healthy eating policy and the pressure is reduced there.

But, birthday parties can be a nightmare. After a few parties where Mr5 came home absolutely bouncing off the walls we decided on a system.... I make his plate up with food and then give it to him. We try to make it as fuss free and draw no attention to it, but he knows the drill. If he is good about it all he can have free range of his lolly bag. Generally he looses interest in the lolly bag before he finishes anyway.

We also dont have any 'naughty' food in the house - this saves all of us from eating it too!!! And we really talk up food like watermelon, strawberries, popcorn (homemade ofcourse!!! :-) ) etc so that he thinks it is a treat.

It is a constant battle, but i hope like Threads of Lights children, he grows up to make healthy food decisions as second nature.

Threads of Light said...

Just wanted to add one more strategy we've been using every Christmas since I can remember, though it could also apply to just about any special occasion.

When we go to our local church Christmas party there is usually a lolly bag filled with the stickiest fakest most revolting (in my opinion) junky lollies that are available at that time of year.

What I do is to make up at home in attractive fabric drawstring bags, a collection of the most delicious healthy treat foods I can find - such as home made honey cashews, carob buds, yogurt covered apricot bites, salted pistachios, etc.

My children (my youngest are 10 and 12) are then given a choice: they either accept and eat the junk lolly bag, OR they get my super scrummy treat bag. If they choose one, they do not get the other, but it is completely their choice.

So far every year the junk lollies are either left alone or put in the bin, but the best part is that it is completely free choice with no guilt attached or pressure one way or the other. It can be quite a sight to see the thought processes going round and round before minds are finally made up!

Nina said...

My oldest is starting school this year and this topic has been on my mind. We are super whole and natural food eaters and it gives me great anxiety thinking other people will be influencing my kids. I love your treat day idea. Thank you for sharing it.

CAM said...

I know that my mum was very hardline with junk food and we weren't allowed it at all....then when we got to high school and were walking to school (to save our bus money) we would pig out on junk food to make up for the lost years....I think it did our teeth no good and I am trying not to be too extreme one way or another with my kids....we aim for a balanced diet (which includes some treats) so they can have one "take-out" meal a week and one treat a week. I have also found it isn't so much peers with mine that put the pressure on but the oldies (affectionately dubbed here) who slip them sweets a lot :)

mrs jones!!!! said...

That sounds like a great idea. At the moment our kids run out of school and cry 'I'm hungry' or run into to nanny's and ask for a chokky bar straight away, we are trying to break the cycle by telling the children they can't have the 'treat' until they have had a 'how are you, what have you done today chat....' with the adult. after that they are calmer and it seems easier to suggest healthier choices.


linda said...

When my children were younger, I let them eat whatever they wanted outside the home and made healthy choices inside the home. They were allowed school lunches twice a week, the rest of the time it was brown bagging.

I educated them of course but as they got closer to their teens, they started to make better choices on their own for fear of gaining weight and then for ethical reasons became vegetarians, then meat eaters again, back and forth until now when they are actually health fanatics currently. I let them go any which way because it was important to not get into a power struggle over food and instead let them feel the subject out for themselves and see what works for them.

kelly said...

great idea!

Kathryn said...

Like CAM, my mother was very controlling of food. (She once offered me a single graham cracker to share with three friends after school.)

When i got to jr. High & High School age, i saved my money & bought the worst of the worst at lunches. And varied that with anorexia. It started a pattern of life-long bad eating that i am now breaking.

I've not been blessed to be a mama, but if i were i'd be very careful about being too controlling, tho i would want my children to eat healthy, wholesome, organic foods most of the time.

Jonah Lisa said...

So far my son hasn't noticed what others at preschool or day camp are eating--but they have healthy snack & lunch policies are eating. I'm also still in that sweet spot of being his main sphere of influence. So I'm just trying to make the most of it while it lasts.

When my son was 1 we started offering him yogurt with blueberries after meals. This is STILL his all time favorite "dessert." Even now that he knows about the existence of cake and brownies and ice cream and such.

For a while we kept organic lollipops in the house for special treats and incentives but having them here made him start asking for them ALL THE TIME. It was a learning experience. I have found that not having stuff in the house is really the best way to go. If I don't want him to have it or ask for it daily, I don't buy it. Once a week, he's allowed to buy a lollipop at the market.

City Girl said...

I LOVE the idea of a treat day. I might try that with my preschooler who is always asking for things that we just don't really buy (sweets, chips, etc).

pmhewitt said...

our kids are 10,8 and 5 and i have found as they get older my standards have slipped slightly :). i have found though that the more we eat healthy stuff at home the less inclined they are to want junk.(we bought KFC once and they all hated it - great lesson - they all talk about how horrible it is now) we do eat at Mcdonalds occasionally but we dont talk about it as a 'treat' we talk about it as 'we are stopping here to eat, because there isnt any real option, you can have what ever you want, but isnt home cooked nicer' . i dont worry about party food, i serve junk and i let them eat junk - because they only go to a couple of parties a year, so its no big deal. their lunch boxes are essentially healthy - they can have tuckshop the last day of each term (if we remember) and occasionally i will slip in a lolly (about 4 times a year). they are quite proud of their healthy lunch box and dont care about eating carrot and celery sticks and homemade cake instead of junk. we had a camping trip with friends with the most atrocious food and by the end of it everyone (down to the then toddler) came home and gorged on fresh veg.i think, like some of the above commenters have mentioned, if you are too strict they rebel. i also take care not to make junk food a 'treat' as i think that sends the wrong message

Hana said...

We also used to have treat day as children - it was the Sunday ice cream. When we got older, mom's policies loosened, but I think I'll try to adopt that idea again when I have my own children. I enjoyed the ice cream much more when I had a whole week of looking forward to it!

Diana said...

What I just don't get is why other children parents think it's weird to control what a child eats and not let them eat junk. Whenever my kids go to a kindergarten party, there are just stacks of chips. I don't get it. Don't the KNOW how bad they are?
One way I've been able to persuade my boys (3 and 5 y.o.) to give some thought as to what they are putting in their mouths is the colour. They like painting with watercolours etc., and I've managed to teach them that humans DON'T eat paint. I encouraged them to taste the watercolours which they didn't (I assume they've tasted them at some point), and after that it's easy - at least with the food that is obviously coloured. (I had to do some convincing about the beetroots and strawberries though).
A great post, thanks!

Jennifer Bové said...

This post really hit home, Julie. I'm in the same boat, with girls that are 8 and 6. Living where we do (in rural Arkansas), it can be tough to convince my kids that there really ARE other people out there who share our views on food. But, we stick to our guns and do our best, which sometimes means they eat cupcakes and Cheetos at school. Sigh...
Hopefully all of the teaching we do as parents will stick with them when we send them off into the world, right?!
Thanks for a great post.
The View From My Boots

Anonymous said...

I believe it is so important to teach moderation. No I don't want my daughter eating a bunch of crap all the time, but is important not to develop guilt with food.
When I was young, ice cream, soda, chips and such were rare. Mostly because we couldn't afford them, but my mother always advocated healthy food. So, on times like birthdays I was going to make it count. Sort of all or nothing. This mentality has haunted me into adulthood. I have quit a few friends who ended up with a similar unhealthy relationship with food.
As a mom I look back on a close friend, who ate pretty healthy to majority of the time. They allowed her treats in moderation. When the kids were young they had a treat day. And later on she became quite a good baker. In our teens she might have some unhealthy treat, but she only ate one. Me, I had been set lose on the world (I had my own money and car) and I over did it. I really believe she didn't because it wasn't a big deal.
Everyone's experience is different.

MistressB said...

We accidently handled this pretty well. Two of my three children have food intolerances to artificial colours and perservatives so kids parties and social outings at other people's houses were my worst nightmares. But the kids soon got used to taking their own.

School was a bit of a worry, but going in and working at the canteen a few days a term I get to check out the foods available and let the kids have the occasional order of 'friendly' foods. And of course we have our own home made alternatives.

But the thing we've found is that they know. By giving them some ownership early on they now act reasonably responsibly now. Occasionally they stuff up, but for the most part they make pretty good food choices when left to their own devices or facing an unexpected food choice and I'd imagine that the same would happen with the types of food choices you are encouraging. :)

Lily Girl said...

I actually eat more healthfully than I did as a child and I had one of the healthiest diets of any of my friends growing up.
My parent's strategies: We ate at home as a family nearly all the time. Mom only made one dinner for everyone, we ate it or not, but she wasn't going to make something else. We always had to at least taste everything once, but we didn't have to finish it if we didn't like it. Fruit was a common dessert. We got to choose one small piece of candy a day (the candy we got at Halloween lasted through Easter, at least). We took our lunches but we did get to pick one day a week to buy the school lunch. We only ate out a couple times a month as a family and fast food was rare.

As an adult I eat a lot more whole grains and vegetables and less meat and processed/prepared foods. But I think that my parents policies were pretty healthy overall. I intend to use most of them when I have children.

han_ysic said...

For our parties my mum used to put out the healthy food first - homemade sausage rolls, fruit, vege sticks and dip, cheese and crackers, and not until most of it was gone would the lollies come out.
For lunches mum would have a sandwich (always brown or multigrain - still my choice of bread) fruit or veges and something treatish, but often homemade such as anzac biscuits or slice. We had lunch orders one day each fortnight and my choice would usually be to still take lunch and just buy an iceblock and save the rest. I was born thrifty. lol