As someone studying nutrition I think a lot about how eating habits are developed. I would really like to work with young people in my future as a dietician, and I’ve dealt with kids in some capacity for most of my working years. I know it’s no secret that childhood obesity is a problem. It poses a huge issue in the present, but perhaps the bigger problems will show up down the road. A generation of children that struggle with living healthfully will become a generation of adults with a whole host of medical problems. Check out this article by the CDC chronicling child and adolescent obesity rates in the U.S.
Humans form multi-sensory connections between items, feelings, and moments all the time. For example, some of us crave that “pumpkin spice” flavor to bring back the coziness and memories of the colors & crispness of autumn. The color green automatically makes us think “go”. But why? It’s just a color! Our brain loves to make connections like this, it’s a type of memory reinforcement that allows us to remember better. And since a child’s brain is developing faster than at any other point in their life, you would think that the associations made at this time have a chance to be the most well-rooted throughout the rest of their lives.
This idea got me thinking about what some of the best memories and associations children make are. I think for a lot of kids their best memories are special days including holidays, birthdays, and family get-togethers. I understand that for some children this isn’t the case, but for this post I’ll focus on the children for which that theory reigns true. (Note: this thinking also doesn’t completely apply to kids with certain disorders and conditions that make it medically difficult for them to maintain a healthy weight. Knowledge and education can definitely help them and their families, but their health is far more complex and probably won’t get much better by simply implementing a healthy diet.)
Then I thought about what the focus is at these events. Giving, love, happiness, and…FOOD. Food seems to be the center of it all: birthday cake, Christmas cookies, Halloween candy, Thanksgiving feasts, and more. Of course a child will crave the comfort and happiness they feel on their birthday; when they receive loads of attention and get gifts! But I think, subconsciously and/or consciously, they will seek out those feelings through the item that is the most easily accessible to them throughout the year: the special treats they get to eat on that day. (After all, is isn’t your birthday every day, but eating cake has the promise of making it feel like it is, especially for a young person.) The making and eating of these treats and goodies is almost ceremonial, and I think it should be. Culture is a huge part of life, and a great one at that! I think it’s awesome to teach your child anything about your culture they want to learn.
So what’s the problem with this cycle? I think the problem is that the only major connection children make with food is the one between happiness and treats. No one makes a big deal about the excitement of steaming broccoli! But really, parents and individuals need to form new traditions around the cooking of healthy food. If you make cooking and eating a healthy meal together just as big of a deal as making gingerbread cookies for Christmas, you can get your child excited about healthy eating. Let them learn how to make homemade bread, and make it a fun event that makes them feel great about themselves. Teach them about how vegetables are grown (or even better, experiment with growing your own fruits, veggies, or herbs!) Talk to them about how eating a balanced diet (including treats in moderation) can make them strong and healthy. Americans need to do better to form a facet of culture that values unprocessed, homemade food options for everyday meals as much as having a turkey on Thanksgiving. And I think it should start with the children of today.
Every parent does their best to feed their children healthfully, and more attention needs to be brought to that. Eating nutritious foods is a big deal, and is really cool, and kids need to understand that. If a child can learn that eating real, whole foods makes for happy memories and happy tummies, they are more likely to keep up those habits throughout their life.
Let me know what you think about this theory of mine!
How do you help your kids (or any child in your life) learn about the importance of healthy eating?