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Table Talk

Cover of book - It's Not About the Broccoli
October 4, 2002
Body paragraph

by Dina R. Rose, Ph.D. - mom and food sociologist 

I urge you to talk to your toddlers about how you want them to eat.

In my experience, talking to your kids about how to eat is one of the most effective, and most overlooked, tactics out there.  You'd be surprised how many parents just plunk down the peas and hope for the best—especially when they have picky eaters.

If you want your kids to eat right you’ve got to let them in on the game plan.

  • Talk to your toddlers often.
  • Talk to your toddlers as specifically as you can.

But don’t talk to your toddlers about:

  • Nutrition. They don’t need to know about vitamins and minerals, fiber or protein in order to eat right.
  • Health.  They don’t want to hear it. They’ll just tune you out. 
  • How much they should eat.  That’s their business, not yours. 

The good news is that there are only 3 things you need to talk to toddlers about.

  • Proportion
  • Variety
  • Moderation

These principles translate everything anyone needs to know about nutrition into behavior. 

Proportion, variety and moderation create the structure—a set of stable rules—you need for eating/feeding success. Proportion, variety and moderation are easy for toddlers to understand.

  • Proportion: We eat more fresh, natural foods than anything else (including crackers, hot dogs, sugary yogurts, candy, cookies...) 
  • Variety: We eat different things on different days. 
  • Moderation: We only eat when we're hungry. We stop eating when we're full.

How easy is that?

Try boiling everything you want your kids to know about nutrition into 3 easy-to-understand statements. You couldn't do it.  

If knowing about nutrition produced healthy eating habits we would be a nation of stellar eaters.

Educating your kids about food only teaches them more about food.  You want to teach your toddlers how to eat, that means teaching them how to make eating decisions.

Never before has a nation known so much about nutrition, yet eaten so poorly. 

It’s time to give up our obsession with nutrition (or should I say addiction to nutrition?) and start talking about habits instead.

Don't underestimate how much toddlers understand. 

The beauty of proportion, variety and moderation is that they are specific and action-oriented. They tell your kids exactly how you want them to eat.

All too often parents know what they mean when they say something, but their kids interpret things differently. 

  • Don't go too far? (Across the room? Across the street?)
  • Don't eat too many sweets? (2? 10? A bagful?)

If you think about it, one reason the “2 more bites” tactic works (at least in the short run) is because it’s incredibly specific. Both you and your kids know exactly what you expect.

Specific statements that produce good eating include directions about how to choose what to eat, not how much to eat.

In this regard, I’m totally with Ellyn Satter who says that you decide what food you’re going to provide and your kids decide how much of it they’re going to eat.  Satter calls this the Division of Responsibility and you can read more about it at the Ellyn Satter Institute

In my experience, many parents end up focusing on how much their toddlers eat because parents feel at a loss to shape what their kids eat. Parents don't make the switch from what to how much intentionally, and there are lots of good reasons to try to get kids to eat more—like you don't want to whip up a meal in the middle of the night. But if you want  your toddlers to choose the right foods, you have to give them some governing guidelines.

Here are a few things you should be very specific about.

Tell your toddlers you want them to eat:

  • A fruit or a vegetable with every meal and every snack. Then make the serving very small.
  • Some of everything on their plates before they eat all of any one item.
  • Something different from day-to-day.

There are other guidelines such as when it's time to eat (and when it's not) and how many sweets to eat in a day. I won't list them here, but they all flow from the three primary principles: proportion, variety and moderation.

Talk may be cheap...

But when it comes to teaching kids to eat right, what you say can really influence what your kids do. And doing (not knowing) is the key to teaching kids to eat right.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Copyright Dina R. Rose. Reposted with permission from It's Not About Nutrition. With years of experience as a sociologist, Dina's experiences as a mom led her to study feeding practices, and through her website, workshops and one-on-one consulting, she shares "a method for making food and eating choices that can be used with different children, at different times and in different situations." 

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