On the upside, you know that Chinese ‘seaweed’ is actually cabbage, right? (And sugar)
Have you ever met a toddler that ‘eats the rainbow’ without the aid of one of those fois gras feeding funnels? I haven’t. Sure, I’ve seen the occasional child make a foray into orange (carrots), dally with red (cherry tomatoes), and even flirt cheekily with light green (avocado). But most of our diminutive table chums prefer to wallow in varying shades of beige.
But I had this dietary theory, and like all the best ones this was based on anecdote and speculation. Growing up, I knew a boy who started fussy, but failed to develop a love of olives, a liking for tuna, and a tolerance for broccoli. In fact he grew into his teens on a diet that excluded staples such as vegetables, meat, eggs and fish. But rather than waste away, he survived and indeed thrived. He lived off the waste products of the beer industry (Marmite), Kellogg’s vitamin fortifications, and the occasional spritz of the milkman’s UHT orange juice, just to keep things fresh. Oh, and chips. With ketchup.
In combination this clutch of foodstuffs delivered all the nutrients he needed, as more than one white-coated professional confirmed. And so was born my idea that this was no mere accident: unknown forces had guided him from an early age towards this combo.
Just like many of my bright ideas, it turns out it wasn’t mine at all; in this instance I’d unwittingly signed myself up to the ‘wisdom of the body’. That has its roots in an astonishing experiment carried out in the 1930s by Clara Davis, who offered 15 children in an orphanage free choice of 33 foodstuffs and monitored their progress. For years this went on, generating tens of thousands of data points. (Here’s a fascinating write-up of the experiment.) And lo and behold, the children turned out just fine. They also regulated their calorie intake according to the rate at which they expended energy – an aspect of ‘self-regulation’ that has later been proven, particularly in younger children. “Eat it all up,” isn’t always helpful, basically.
There was, however, a flaw in the research: all of those 33 choices were healthy. No turkey twizzlers, no cola on tap. Happily for a new generation of orphans, Davis never got around to a re-run with added junk food, as was her intention (and her experimental data was never made available to others). But the idea of physiological ‘intelligence’ had taken seed; Dr Spock asked mums to trust their children’s instinct, and there are echoes of the idea today in approaches that value the enjoyment of food above its health-giving attributes, together with the idea of ‘listening to your body’ as a means of optimising your diet.
As a counter-blast to the “Sit back down and eat your gr or there’ll be no Scooby Doo this evening” school of parenting, that’s all useful. But the queues for the salad bar on board the cross-channel ferry, my daughter’s shiny-eyed excitement at the very idea of a trip to ‘Old MacDonald’s’ and the capacious waistband on her new Rainbows tracksuit bottoms (size small) all provide a smart retort: if the theory holds true at all, its effect is vastly outweighed by other factors. There’s a free obesity pun for you right there, no charge.
So it appears we can’t let nature take its course. My children’s bodies are even less trusty guides to the menu than my own. Looks like we need to take control.
Escape lane ahead
Except… and here’s your first chink of light, layabout parents: less is perhaps more. “Mothers who made greater use of prodding, rewards, and punishments to encourage eating (contingency) had children with higher eating problem scores,” is one conclusion from a useful article which looks at three parental approaches: controlling, laissez-faire and responsive. The sticker-chart approach falls into the first camp, so let’s kick that into touch. Laissez-faire is where we began, and while I’m sure it’s technically possible to eat cheesy Quavers from dawn til dusk, just think how smelly their trumps would be.
So that leaves responsive parenting. As with so many other areas of parenting that means going light on the lectures; leave the ‘stand in the corner until you’re ready’ tactic to the education secretary; and look for gentle, repeated ways to embed good habits. The fact that fewer than 10% of infants and toddlers consumed dark green, leafy vegetables may not come as any great shock to you, but it’s worth reminding yourself that pre-school aged children frequently need 10-16 trials of new foodstuffs to like them. That’s a lot of leftovers. But there’s a reason why the phrase “Just try one mouthful,” is likely to make you feel five years old again: you’ll have heard it a lot, and the spirit (if not the words) is one you should aim for, too.
Make good food available, involve your children in the preparation and cooking where possible, minimise the rubbish (although a freezer with no potato waffles? Unimaginable). But restrictions, eat-this-then-you’ll-get-that, and nuggets of truth about the vitamins they’ll enjoy are all tactics that are likely to be counter-productive – and potentially lead to bigger, more serious eating problems in later years, especially for girls.
It’s all their friends’ fault
And now here’s your second get-out-of-jail card. While parental modelling and guidance matters, the choices of your children’s peers matter more and more with each year that passes. Based on my sample of one, for example, my daughter went from “cheese on white, hold the crusts” to something approximating a normal diet just by joining her mates in the school dinner queue. (It will be really interesting to see what effect the introduction of free school dinners for all infant-aged children in the UK has in this regard, beginning September 2014).
One study outlined the combo to beat them all: modelling of exemplary eating habits by an enthusiastic teacher in front of children who all had the same meal choice. So all you need to do now is get your child into a good private school with enthusiastic veg-munching teachers at the top table and you’re home and dry.
You’re playing the long game here, so what are your family habits that you hope will pay off when it comes to your children’s diet? Give us your tips below, but don’t get grease on that lovely smartphone.