Admit it: family dinner-time is often a battlefield. Parents vow to get their kids to eat healthy foods, and children just want to eat what they like. Meanwhile, national obesity rates keep climbing.
Sociologist Dina Rose has advice for parents who wage this battle: quit obsessing over nutrition.
Rose, mother of a 13-year-old daughter and a professional people-watcher, says too many parents are looking at the wrong finish line. Our goal is to raise future adults who can make the right decisions of what, when and how much to eat. It's not meeting some daily quota of broccoli that we cajole, dictate or negotiate into a toddler.
"It's Not About the Broccoli," which hits bookshelves this month, explains three habits that Rose recommends for a lifetime of healthy eating. It started when Rose, who lives in Hoboken, N.J., gave birth to her daughter a few months after her own mother died at the age of 65, weighing just over 300 pounds.
Rose notes, "I was really consumed with 'how do I socialize my daughter around food so she has the right habits?'" She had vowed early on never to force her daughter to eat the last spoonful on her plate. Watching other families, she saw lots of tension, battles for control, frustrated parents and confused kids. That's when she realized healthy eating is about teaching habits, like manners or how to choose what to wear.
There's a taste of Connecticut in her book, shaped by kids and parents at Stay and Play in Old Saybrook, a family playroom that her brother, Roger, opened six years ago. That's where she held her first workshop for parents on the art and science of teaching kids to eat right. She's become a full-time parent educator and feeding expert through her "It's Not About Nutrition" website, workshops and consultations in New Jersey, New York and Connecticut. Her columns appear in the Huffington Post and Psychology Today.
"It's developing the habits of proportion, variety and moderation that translate nutrition into behavior," she says, pointing out that while Americans are the most nutritionally aware (we can recite messages about fat, fiber, calcium, protein, antioxidants and vitamins), we also have three times the obesity rate of France, where people are culturally obsessed with the experience of eating a variety of foods for taste, texture and enjoyment, not nutrition.
Rose says our nutrition mindset is to blame. Worried that our kids don't get enough of the nutrient du jour, we overfeed them a steady diet of "healthified" foods that we figure aren't too bad. We rationalize that daily pizza is okay if the crust is whole wheat; we look past the saturated fat in cheese and focus on the calcium and protein instead; we count French fries as almost fresh veggies. We believe that children like bland and beige foods, and that they don't like vegetables. So it's unreasonable to expect our little darlings to naturally enjoy healthy foods.
"We find a core group of foods that our kids eat, without a struggle,"Rose says. "In the process, we're teaching our children to expect that it's normal to eat a monotonous diet. Then we wonder why they won't try new foods."
In the book, Rose helps adults identify their own food hang-ups and realize how we're sabotaging our best intentions. Then she lays out strategies to move from food wars to compromise, getting parents and kids on the same side of the challenge to introduce variety and build healthy food habits.
"The nutrition mentality makes us say, 'If it's nutritious enough and my child wants it, I have no reason not to give it to her,'" says Rose.
But daily juice-sippers are more prone to move on to soda and a constant diet of breads and chips full of fat and salt, which builds up their preference for processed foods over the taste and crunch of broccoli and carrots.
So, what if our kids are almost in college?
"It's never too late to change the game," she says. "We have to start talking about behavior, not nutrition, with our kids, whether they are 2, 12 or 20. Tell them what the goal is and where we're going. If they don't know where we're trying to get them to go, they can't help you to get there."