How do you determine what food to give your children?

“How do you yourself determine what to eat? It is the same with children. What we eat is determined by a number of things, including what we feel like eating, which may be affected by our ideas about health and other things.”
– Sarah Fitz-Claridge


“How do you determine what food to give your children? What about healthy eating?”

We think carefully about what they might want, and we ask them if that is what they would like. Whether they accept or reject that idea, it gives us valuable information about what their current (evolving) tastes and other considerations are.

What they want will depend not just on how things taste, but also on other things, including what they think is healthy. Note that children are not born detesting healthy food. We parents inadvertently cause such problems by trying to control our children’s diet instead of just giving them the information about our health-related theories so that they can make informed choices.

What we have to remember is that we are fallible human beings, and some of our theories about what we should or should not eat, may be mistaken. When I was a child, butter started being deemed bad to eat on grounds of its saturated fat content, so my mother dutifully followed the expert advice to switch to margarine. Quite apart from the fact that it tasted absolutely disgusting, it now turns out that that margarine is (experts now think) far more unhealthy than butter ever was. So we went through all that misery for nothing!

Another thing the experts used to (possibly still do?) advise everyone to eat for our health, was whole grain cereals like Shredded Wheat. So my mother often dutifully bought Shredded Wheat for us instead of the Golden Nuggets I loved, and my goodness I cannot imagine a more unappetising so-called foodstuff. It was like eating shredded wood. And having suffered through that ghastly stuff during my childhood, For My Health, as an adult I am diagnosed with Coeliac Disease, and all that so-called healthy whole wheat and other glutenous grains has quietly done permanent damage in my body in the meantime.

So much for expert advice about food. Think very carefully before foisting your own ideas about healthy eating on your children. You might mean very well, like my sweet mother meant so very well, and yet be actively harming your children’s health.

Another thing to bear in mind is that some of your ideas about what children dislike may be mistaken, and you may be inadvertently propelling your children into hating healthy things. If you are American, for example, you may think that children the world over loathe broccoli. Yet loathing broccoli is not a thing in Britain. In Britain, it is very common for children to love broccoli. What causes American children to loathe broccoli is not genetic, and it is not that American broccoli tastes different, it is that American parents expect their children to loathe it, because that idea is apparently a deeply held belief in American culture. So American parents worry that there will be a battle to get their children to eat it, and they try to sneak it into other things, and they try to ‘encourage’ their children to eat it. Some even reward their children for eating it.

Can you think of a more reliable way of ensuring that a person will grow up detesting broccoli than all that manipulation and coercion? I can’t! If someone is trying to get me to eat something, I am likely to wonder why my eating that thing is quite so important to them, and I am likely to do the opposite of whatever I am being ‘encouraged’ to do. And when you try to get them to eat it by adding extrinsic rewards for eating it, how on earth are they to realise that broccoli is delicious?! If it needs a reward surely it can’t be at all palatable?! (Mind you, maybe a few financial rewards for chomping my way through the shredded wood wouldn’t have gone amiss! Compensation more like!) If it needs to be hidden in other things, again, that certainly does not inspire confidence that this is something one would eat willingly.

Likewise, when we parents try to keep our children away from ‘unhealthy’ things, they get the message that there are these particularly delicious things that are being rationed or denied them, and now we are in ‘forbidden fruit’ territory, and we all know what that does. When my mother did buy the Golden Nuggets I loved, I literally ate the whole box in one sitting if I got the chance. Not sure that that was quite the intended outcome.

So what I would do is to have a wide variety of healthy delicious foods always available, and (once, not multiple times, and certainly not every day!) tentatively mention my theories about healthy eating, and the effect of sugar on teeth etc., and be sure to say that expert theories about all this have changed over time and our theories now might well be mistaken, and RELAX about it all. Seriously! RELAX! Stop trying to control your children’s food choices.

Turning food consumption into a battle can, if your child is unlucky, lead to eating disorders and subclinical food irrationalities that can adversely affect their longterm health. Before you start trying to control your children’s eating, think very carefully about how you yourself would feel if you yourself were being coerced to eat things you do not like, and being denied things you do like. Even if you yourself are unusually laid back about what goes into your body, other people are not. Other people feel a strong desire to be in control of what goes in their body. And they react very badly when that control is taken out of their hands. And some of those ways may lead to bad outcomes. And this happens all the time. It is not just a small, unlikely thing.

See also:

Sarah Fitz-Claridge, 2022, Taking Children Seriously FAQ: ‘How do you determine what food to give your children?’,

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