Peer Pressure and Healthy Eating

Dear Sharon,

I want my kids to be healthy and I am determined to beat the “peer and social pressure” of eating processed foods. Can you advise a parent like me how I can convince my children to follow our good eating program, (not boring but fresh and real food)? A parent of my son’s friend told my son that we were “depriving” our kids of trips to McDonalds etc., which really annoyed me.

Dear Parent,

Confusing messages about food are everywhere. Many people including Michelle Obama are trying to change some of these messages but change often comes more slowly than we would like.

Generally I think it is important for a parent to be as clear as possible about what they think should happen in their home. As our environment is full of processed food that many people eat and that taste good to most children our little ones often get upset with our dietary requests.

Parents set guidelines and limits on many issues. When convincing a child to agree to something that is difficult to do (avoiding processed food is difficult for most children) it is useful for a parent to be sympathetic to the difficulty, ready for the possible complaints that ensue and most importantly clear, calm and relatively brief in their explanation.

It can also help to get input from a child about foods they might enjoy eating so that the conversation doesn’t become a power battle between adult and child. (power battles usually don’t end well). A child might want to make a list of things they particularly like to eat, select some items at the grocery store or be given some leeway about food on special occasions. All of these things can help reduce tension.

It can also be good to have someone outside the immediate family offer perspective if things at home get repeatedly argumentative. (A trusted pediatrician, relative or babysitter sometimes can play a helpful role).

As with many parental decisions there will often be Moms or Dads who think differently. That of course is “annoying” but to be expected especially if your thoughts are different than the families around you. In your case an adult’s personal reaction was shared with your child. That makes things particularly complicated. Many parents I know who have been in similar situations have offered this simple but usually effective explanation, “Our family is different than others and that is OK.”

I think one key to having “limit setting” conversations go well is the strength of a Mom’s or Dad’s relationship with their child. If there is already a communicative and loving relationship between parent and child then a conversation about diet is likely to go relatively smoothly.

If a parent and child argue often then decisions about diet will be harder to put in place. I often tell parents to spend some time enjoying their children before tackling difficult topics such as food choices. It is usually much easier for parents to successfully help their children when they are feeling relaxed and pleased with them.

Setting healthy eating patterns in a family is usually not easy for children or adults but I believe it can be done thoughtfully over time and can work well for everyone.