Healthy Eating in Families: Avoiding the Power Struggle

by Dana Crater

My wife and I have a total of six weeks of experience as parents. Nieces and nephews have come to visit us, one at a time for a week to give us a taste of what it must be like as a parent. Thus, I am completely unqualified to comment on anything resembling parent-child relationships. For help on a follow-up to It’s Not About the Broccoli I turned to Dana Crater who runs a youth group at our church. I have enjoyed working with her on Sunday evenings. Her qualifications to write on this issue will become immediately obvious!


As a pediatrician and a parent of three children, I have had my share of struggles encouraging healthy eating habits in both my patients and my children. It’s not easy.  In fact, it’s nearly impossible at times. And full disclosure: I have a sweet tooth myself, so it is challenging to be the perfect example!

One of the first things I learned as a parent, when trying to spoon-feed my first child, was that if you spend too much time playing games and using tricks to “force” your child to eat exactly what and how much you want him to eat, the child will learn to use mealtime as a tool to get attention. He learns that the more he does the opposite of what you are trying to achieve, the more attention he will get. The longer he closes his sweet little mouth to the spoonful of pureed spinach on a colorful plastic spoon, the longer Mommy will make cute noises and zoom the spoon around, all the while giving him face-to-face contact and her undivided attention. Hmmmmm, he is thinking…I’m going to draw this mealtime out as long as possible, so Mommy will play more eating games with me. She never pays me THIS much attention…this is amazing! I think I will refuse even my favorite foods to see if this quality time can last longer!

Of course hindsight is 20/20, right? At the time, all I was thinking was, “He MUST eat his greens! If he doesn’t, his brain will not grow and I’ll be the worst mom ever. …I’ll just keep trying, no matter how long it takes!”

In my other arena, the pediatric office, I boldly sat, telling parents and children about fruits, vegetables, whole grains. Limit milk, no juice, less sugar, lots of water, enough protein, less sugar, enough dairy, lots of exercise, less sugar.

Meanwhile, at home, all three of my children were getting tired of eating low-sugar healthy cereals. They would take three bites and the rest went to waste. The cereal, the milk, all down the drain. It was frustrating to say the least. They did not like plain cereals anymore. They weren’t eating them, and I was not about to force feed three school-age children. I started to evaluate our eating habits at home…

Fruits?  No problem. Generous supply available, served at every meal and as snacks. Easy.

Veggies?  Hmmmmm… sometimes yes, sometimes no. I learned that adding variety and adding dipping sauces helps the total veggie intake. Letting them help you choose at the store, help you prepare, be a part of the process- it helps…sometimes. Snacks in our home have to start with a fruit or veggie, followed by something they actually want to eat. Even small amounts here and there can count- a few carrot sticks, a few apple slices..these add up during the day, and allowing smaller servings is less intimidating and less often argument-producing.

In addition to encouraging fruits and vegetables at each meal and for snacks, we only bought whole grain bread, so the kids didn’t know any different. In fact, two of them still do not like white bread, and choose wheat every time.

Water, water, and more water. That’s our motto. Along with some milk here and there. No soda, no juice, and no sports drinks as a general rule. Too much sugar.  The one exception is fresh local Florida orange juice, which in very small amounts is acceptable for breakfast. And too delicious to neglect.

We are a busy family constantly on the go, so I had to be realistic and know that sometimes we had to eat processed foods: granola bars, lunchables, mac n cheese, hot dogs, Eggo waffles…these have all appeared in our kitchen at one time or another. Not as a daily or even weekly snack item, but here and there for those super-busy times when a mom has no choice but to give in to Velveeta. My children viewed these items as special treats rather than the norm, which I think is perfectly fine. I taught them to read labels so they are aware of how many grams of sugar and how much protein foods have.

We love ice cream in our home. Love it. A lot. Also baked goods. And cookies. We are dessert-lovers. And desserts are ok in moderation. So our rule is that you have to eat the dinner you have been served, including the greens on your plate, if you want dessert. It is a reward, not an expectation. (Except for me…I’m an adult, so I can taste my dessert even while I’m cooking dinner if I so choose…as long as the kids don’t see.)

Back to the cereal problem. It’s at the crux of the single most annoying food problem that all families face…what to do when your children flat-out refuse a food on their plate. Some families force the child to eat it, even if they starve until the next morning when they have to eat last night’s dinner for breakfast if they want to survive the coming day.  Some families let the child rule the house and have whatever they want at any given time. Our family takes the middle road, which is to avoid a huge power struggle and allow some variation in the all-healthy eating routine, as long as most of our intake is healthy and real foods.

This solution manifested itself as a cupboard with Cocoa Puffs, Cinnamon Life, and Honey Bunches of Oats in addition to plain Cheerios and Go Lean. My kids found new excitement in breakfast time, and practically skipped out the front door on the way to school with joy and a full belly. Careful inspection of the labels revealed 9 grams of sugar instead of 3 in some cases, but because we are overall healthy eaters, I have come to terms with the sweet cereals taking up residence in our pantry.

A crucial piece of the healthy family puzzle is of course exercise. My moderately flexible approach to healthy eating presupposes that there is daily exercise happening for all. Which it does.

Every family handles the nutrition struggle differently, and there is no right or wrong answer. My strategy with eating has been not too strict, not too lenient, but somewhere in between, and for my family, so far, so good.

Next week: Pop nutrition

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