Health nuts sometimes need to be reminded that an occasional slice of cake isn’t going to hurt their children

By Catherine Orda | Photo by Ari Sherbill /Unsplash

There is a complexity to the question of whether or not you should feed your children healthy food. On one hand, it goes without saying that children should be raised on a healthy diet. But on the other hand, there are crucial questions you have to consider.

For instance, how strict should you be about it? Does sticking to a healthy diet entail the total elimination of sweets or any kind of food that’s not normally considered nutritious? And what exactly constitutes a healthy diet anyway? We’ve previously touched on the often convoluted nature of what it means to eat healthy, and one of the conclusions we came to is the idea of a personalized diet. So then another question is raised: Should you put your children on personalized diets?

There aren’t many ways to approach this question that can save you from this dilemma but after doing a survey of parenting columns and the necessary research, we found a common strategy among parents who no longer cite their children’s diets as a concern: stop caring too much. The thing is, kids don’t care about this stuff, and the more their parents make a big deal of eating healthy, the more these kids reject healthy food. Of course a lot goes into this business of “not caring too much.” Here’s what parents need to know about healthy eating as it relates to children:

Don’t Overthink

This can’t be emphasized enough: Stop making a big deal of healthy eating. All the tantrums and table theatrics children are bound to throw on account of a single bite of vegetables could more or less be resolved by this simple logic. If a parent is one to constantly lecture their child over the health benefits of, say, broccoli, chances are the kid will not want to eat it as they’ll likely associate it with sermons. It’s important not to have a fight over eating, otherwise dining (and food in general) will become a source of anxiety. The goal is to make children see eating as simply something we do when we get hungry—not a task fraught with lessons on nutrition or something that can lead to a shouting match.

The thing is, kids don’t care about this stuff, and the more their parents make a big deal of eating healthy, the more these kids reject healthy food.

Psychotherapist Susie Orbach, who has written extensively about this topic, says that the best thing to do is to “neutralize food so that broccoli is no better or worse than bread or pasta.” The less parents make a fuss about which foods are healthy and which are not, the more likely their children will be less picky about what they eat. And about lecturing children on nutritious food, Orbach says that parents need to remember that “children watch and notice what we do and how we eat more than what we say about food.”

Variety is Key

Charlotte Stirling-Reed of The Nutrition Society has this to say about feeding your children greens: “Greens are not essential. The nutrients found in green vegetables can be found in other foods. So as long as you feed your children a wide variety of foods, you will get those nutrients elsewhere.” Fixating on a certain food group—even if it’s traditionally considered “healthy”—is a mistake some parents can make. The writer Tim Lott, who has written about how he was once preoccupied with feeding his daughters vegetables like green peas, says that parents just need to do their best to present fresh and varied food. “Do your best does not mean ‘be perfect,’ incidentally.” And of course, there’s also taste to consider. Besides freshness and variety, it’s important that the food you feed them tastes good. “If you don’t’ do that, you’re never going to get anywhere. Don’t emphasize health—make it about enjoyment,” writes Lott.