"Happy meals" and healthy starts

By Adam Glasgow - 6/21/2018

If you’ve been reading my blog lately (or if you have come to support group), you may have heard about my weakness for McDonald’s. Yes, your weight loss doctor has admitted that he had a bit of a bad habit. (Note the past tense there!)

My penchant for the Golden Arches started at a young age, as many of our habits do. On nights that my father was working late, my mother would take me, my brother and my sister out for a special meal -- a “happy meal,” you might say. I still remember the excitement of pulling up to our local McDonald’s and the anticipation of the salty fries and the joy at the first bite of fish filet. I was hooked and hooked at a young age. Of course, in those days we weren’t as savvy about healthy eating as we are today. That craving for McDonald’s stayed with me well into adulthood. In fairness to my parents -- in part because they might actually read this -- I will add that they were both early proponents of healthy eating and, much to my dismay, even had our whole family on a meat free diet for the better part of the late Seventies.

So, I’ve been thinking lately about how, what, and why we feed our children, and the patterns that form so early. Many of my patients tell me that they struggle with healthy eating in part because they have junk food in the house for their kids. I get it.  When my kids were young, we had our share of unhealthy snacks in the house and we enjoyed the occasional fast food dinner too. But now, after years of counseling families on weight loss and healthy eating, I see the importance of the bigger picture.

The foods we feed our children when they are young will be the foods they crave when they are older. If we give our children processed chicken nuggets and pizza and cookies--especially at a young age--then they will continue to crave those foods into adulthood. But if instead, we start them early with healthy alternatives like grilled chicken and vegetables and salads, then those will be the foods they know and value. No child comes into this world craving chicken nuggets.  We start the cycle by giving that child those chicken nuggets. And if there is no junk in the house, our kids will not eat junk (and added bonus--neither will we!).

Of course, each child, just like each adult, is unique and some will be more vulnerable to cravings and food addictions than others. Who knows what predispositions our children have? We can’t of course, so we must give them the best chance at living a healthy life by making healthy decisions for them early.

Beyond the type of food we feed our children, we also need to be aware of the messages we attach to it.  Not uncommonly food is used as a reward or punishment.  For example, we might say “if you are good today, we’ll get you ice cream” or the inverse, “if you don’t behave, you can’t have those cookies.” Many of us grew up hearing these messages from our own parents and so they become a natural part of the dialogue with our children. While well intended, when we link food to reward and punishment (and in our kids’ minds, being good or bad), eating becomes layered with psychological messages. Our children learn early that they can obtain our love and approval by eating what we want them to and that food is a prize for good behavior. And as our children grow up, they retain those messages. As many of us know, in our own adult lives, food means more than just nourishment – and we can often trace the roots of those issues to our own childhoods. At some point, we stop “eating to live and start living to eat.”

Finally, we sometimes try to coerce our children to eat. These conversations sound something like this: “finish what’s on your plate,” or “you have to eat before you go out,” or “eat all your vegetables if you want dessert.” Once again, while undoubtedly well intentioned, we risk sending our kids the wrong message by cajoling them to eat. If we offer them healthy choices and don’t make food an issue, then hopefully our children will eat when they are hungry and not when they aren’t. What a valuable gift we can give to our children by allowing them to stop eating when they are satisfied. So many of us (me included!) are still trying to learn that lesson in adulthood.

One of the greatest gifts we can give our children, in addition to our love and understanding, is a healthy relationship with food. It’s time to give “happy meals” a new meaning.

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