How can a parent deal with children who won’t eat the food on their plate? It is the one common question I have been asked in the two interviews1 I have done for my book. It’s Not About the Broccoli may provide the answer that so many parents have been searching for. Unlike so many of the authors of food books, Dina Rose does not claim to be an expert in nutrition. Rather, she has a Ph.D. in sociology. After leaving a career in criminology, she turned her attention to studying the parent/child/food interaction and finding ways to defuse hostile mealtime outbreaks. Her secret is to focus on developing good eating habits rather than on the food itself. As a person who has never fathered a child, I may not be the best person to comment on this book.
“The more that parents focus on nutrition, the worse their kids are likely to eat.” If it is not about the broccoli then it is about a three-way relationship between the parent, the child and the food. Kids understand power and have little or no interest in nutrition. Rose indicates that the two most common mistakes parents make a mealtime are being either too controlling or too permissive. Applying pressure only makes the child an adversary. Instead, she suggests that parents must be compromisers without ceding authority. A parent dealing with food issues should be authoritative rather than being authoritarian or permissive. Her strategy is not a ten-minute solution but a long, slow process which is designed pay off bigtime in the future.
“bad eating habits don’t disappear as children grow up; they get worse.” In It’s Not About the Broccoli we are told that parents owe it to their children and their grandchildren to teach good eating habits. The earlier in the child’s life a parent starts working on developing good eating habits the easier the job will be. Rose realizes that parents can’t change their children’s bad eating habits overnight. They need a long-term strategy. Unsaid, but implied, is that controlling or permissive parents in general might need to change their overall parenting style. She describes six parenting styles when it comes to their children and food. Nutritionistas and Food Police know what their children need to eat and are unwilling to compromise. Nurturers and Comforters tend to use junk foods as rewards for good eating behavior. Neither strategy is recommended by the author.
“It means that they eat very healthy food more frequently than they eat mediocre food, and they eat mediocre food more frequently than they eat junk.” I have no problem classifying some foods as junk foods, but I am wary of labeling any item as a “healthy” food. Any food eaten to excess to the exclusion of other “healthy” foods can lead to an inadequate diet. Rose clarifies the terms by labelling them as Growing (whole including frozen and canned vegetables), Fun (higher levels of processed foods with elevated levels of fat, salt and/or sugar) and Treat foods (junk). I like her approach to not eliminate junk but seeking to greatly reduce it. Although she avoids using nutritional composition to classify foods, she generally develops a reasonable classification system. The author firmly rejects the promotion of single nutrients as found in popular food books and Big Food ads.
“Never before has a nation known so much about nutrition, yet eaten so poorly.” Here is where I differ with a main premise of the book. I question how much Americans really know about nutrition. What we know is what I call pop nutrition which largely rejects conventional nutrition (more detail on this issue later in the month). Rose does not reject nutrition but tries to steer the reader away from what she calls a “nutrition mindset.” She equates nutrition with what is healthful, not unlike many authors of popular books on food. She questions the value of the Food Guide Pyramid as it does not take into consideration combination items like pizza, casseroles etc. Most modern meals and products are too difficult to deconstruct into portions of dairy, fruits, grains, protein and vegetables. I am becoming concerned that, as a society, we are becoming in danger of ignoring conventional nutrition. Could we be on the path to partitioning nutrition from dietary advice and practice?
“If you really want to change how your kids eat, you have to change the structure.” In It’s Not About the Broccoli structure refers to how meals are planned and served, appropriate times for meals and snacks, and the parent/child relationship. The first bad habit that needs to be broken is the repetitious consumption of a small number of foods, usually less than desirable. A key tactic in the overall strategy is The Rotation Rule where the same food is not offered two days in a row and new, healthier foods are introduced gradually. An authoritative parent must keep clear rules and make sure that these rules are clearly understood by parent and child. Rose recommends that parents involve their children in food decisions and give them choices. The parent must continue to play the role of the parent, however, and remain in charge. She is adamant that “Arguing achieves nothing.”
Some concluding thoughts
It’s Not About the Broccoli is well-thought through—clear but flexible. This approach is not for the faint-of-heart parent who wants a quick fix. A successful program will require time and effort with much thinking and strategizing. Remember, most children have more time to study their parents’ behavior than the other way around. Many of the struggles described in this book reminded me of what I read in All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood which states that “Homework is the new family meal.” The challenges facing parents today are daunting!
I write this review cautiously as my mother used to proclaim that the only perfect parents were the ones who never had any children. My overall assessment is that Rose has proposed an excellent approach to avoiding family food fights which she has successfully worked out on her only child and on the children of her clients. My question is “Are harried parents able to find the time to work out the details needed to implement the strategy?” In addition, not all children respond in similar ways, not even in the same family, so the strategy will likely need to be different with each child. In the last chapter she addresses this issue briefly but not to the extent merited. I highly recommend this book to any parent willing to spend the time and effort to reduce the family clashes at mealtime.
Next week: A mother who happens to be a pediatrician takes on Healthy Eating in families