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Imagine you and your children are on a big boat in the middle of the
ocean. And the boat is taking on water. On one side of the boat, you're bailing
as fast as you can. You're working hard, thinking smart, trying to save all of
your lives and keep the ship afloat. But on the other side of the boat is a
small group working just as hard, punching holes in the hull. And no matter how
much progress you make, you just can't compensate for the damage that they're
Frustrating, right? Well, that's sort of what America's food marketers
are doing to this country in the battle against obesity.
According to media industry estimates, advertisers spend $900 million
every year on television shows aimed at children under 12. And more than
two-thirds of that advertising is for food products: fast-food meals with
action figures and dolls; sugary cereals with cartoon spokespeople;
"juice" drinks that have about as much to do with actual fruit as
Swedish Fish have to do with mackerel. The average child between ages 8 and 18
spends three hours a day in front of the television, and according to the Federal
Trade Commission, kids ages 2 to 11 will see 26,000 TV ads this year—22 percent
of them marketing food. And their message—that junk food equals instant
happiness—is one that sticks with a child for all his life.
So how do you fight back? You can teach your children how to swim,
starting with just these few basic rules.
Nowadays, kids avoid vegetables like they're out-of-style sneakers;
only one in five of them actually eats enough plant matter. If you want to
reverse that trend, a little scheming can go a long way. Research out of
England found that giving children a taste of a new vegetable daily for two weeks
increased their enjoyment and consumption of that food.
Not all strategies sound as sinister as the exposure therapy. Giving
kids ownership over what they eat is also a powerful play. Consider planting a
garden. Studies show that kids' acceptance of fruits and vegetables increases
after participating in growing them. No time to till? Simply letting your
children choose their vegetables can lead to an 80 percent increase in their
Never Skip Breakfast. Ever.
"Don't skip breakfast" is the persistent platitude heard
'round the world. Which may explain why so few pay attention—especially
children. A 2005 study showed that kids skipped breakfast more than any other
meal despite its reign as the king of meals. The effects of this epidemic are
by now well known. Test after test shows that breakfast-eating students score
higher on short-term memory and verbal fluency, among many other academic
Maybe breakfast's most important contribution, however, is found not in
its own nutritional value, but in its impact on the rest of the day's eating
habits. Research says children eating a meal in the morning will themselves
choose less soda and fewer fries while opting for more vegetables and milk
throughout the rest of the day.
We know time can be an issue in the chaos of the early morning hours.
But a nutritious bowl of cereal, cup of yogurt or even microwaveable breakfast
is never more than a few minutes away.
Whether it's a Clean Plate Club membership drive or castigations about
starving Africans, efforts by parents to get their children to eat healthy
foods can backfire. In a 2009 study of 63 children, Cornell researchers found
that those whose parents insisted on clean plates ate 35 percent more of a
sweetened cereal later in the day. If kids ate 35 percent more than one serving
of Froot Loops every day for a year, they'd gain four pounds.
There is a corollary. A Pennsylvania study indicated that the
restriction of specific yummy foods from children's plates actually increased
the kids' long-term preference for and consumption of those foods. It's also
been found that kids who are barred from having certain indulgences tend to eat
more when they're not hungry.
The lesson here is twofold: First, there is a fine line between
encouraging your kids to try new foods and forcing them to eat against their
will. The negative tone and tenor of all those warnings about not finishing our
lima beans when we were kids is probably one of the reasons why most American
adults still don't eat enough vegetables.
Set a house rule that your children need to try a new food three times
before deciding whether they like it. If they still don't dig it after the
third attempt, then Mom and Dad need to let it go. On the flip side, banning
foods from your household can backfire, so rather than forbidding certain
foods, set up specific parameters for when treats can be enjoyed.
According to another study from Cornell, portion size is the most
powerful predictor of how much preschool-age children eat. And with the typical
manufacturers' snack package being 2.5 times bigger than the appropriate amount
for young kids, health-conscious parents fight an uphill battle.
Control what you can. Keep in mind that restaurant portions—even for
kids—are egregiously oversized, so don't force them to wolf down every last
tater tot. Splitting a dish with a sibling is never a bad idea (as long as you
ask for two toys). At home, use smaller bowls, plates and utensils. Jedi mind
trick or not, there's plenty of evidence that kids will consume fewer calories
when you downsize the dishes.
The portion of America's food dollars spent on meals out increased from
34 percent to 48 percent between 1974 and 2008. Parents' increasing penchant
for restaurant food can translate to nutritionally unsound decisions by kids.
One recent study laid the heaviest blame on fathers. Researchers at
Texas A&M University say dads carry the most influence largely because when
they take their kids to Mickey D's, it's often as a treat or some sort of
celebration. This enforces the idea that unhealthy eating is positive. Mothers,
on the other hand, often choose fast food due to time constraints, so the food
doesn't hold as much psychological sway.
Turn Off the Tube
Since 1970, the number of television ads aimed at children has doubled
to 40,000 per year, and several studies suggest that the amount of time kids
watch television is a strong predictor of how often they request specific
foods. This spells big trouble for one reason: Half of all TV ads directed at
children promote junk food.
The solution is simple: Shove your kids outside. Surprise them with a
bike, a soccer ball, a Chihuahua dog—anything to get them moving. More time
spent outdoors means less time being exposed to television marketing. Of
course, the larger benefit is that they get more exercise, which decreases the
risk of a lot of bad stuff: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even boredom.