Monday, July 14, 2008

Changing Our Kids’ Eating Habits

Almost every month, a new person finds their way to our Davis County UFAN meetings. Often they or their children are newly diagnosed, and they’re struggling to find a way to ease this transition into thinking about food in a whole new way. We welcomed just such a mom to our group last week, so our discussion revolved around ways to help her five-year-old daughter learn to change her eating habits.

Teaching a child to avoid certain foods is hard. Doing it when that child is old enough to have already developed a taste for those foods is even harder.

Unfortunately, food allergies can develop at any time. (I became allergic to barley and avocado in my 20s.) In some ways, it may be easier to have your child’s allergies appear when they’re very young, before they learn to love fudge, or popcorn shrimp, or ice cream. Although there are safe versions of most foods, the tastes aren’t always the same, and it’s hard to get a six-year-old to understand why he can’t have the ice cream at Baskin Robbins now, when he could last month. But if he’s grown up knowing only the taste of soy ice cream, he doesn’t have that problem.

So when you’re faced with teaching an older child that managing her food allergies means giving up some of her favorite foods, it can be an uphill climb.

Some kids are so tired of being sick or miserable from symptoms like eczema, vomiting, or hives that they’re willing to give up those foods to feel better. But some kids really can’t seem to associate the bad reactions later with the yummy taste now. All they can focus on is the instant gratification – what happens later, even if it’s only ten minutes from now, doesn’t concern them. We have to be concerned for them and take on the role of food cop. And they don’t like it one bit. (Neither do we, frankly.)

Once again, we find that this parenting gig is hard. I know, I know, big surprise.

Of course, we’re not alone. Lots of parents face challenges when it comes to food, regardless of whether allergies are involved. It’s our job to teach our kids healthy eating habits. (And that’s made even more difficult when our own habits aren’t that great!)

We have to teach them why they can’t eat candy for breakfast. Why they can’t eat six popsicles in a single sitting. Why they have to eat at least one serving of veggies with their hot dog. Why they can’t eat the entire bag of Oreos right before dinner.

We try to teach about the food pyramid, or at least the four basic food groups (I never have gotten the hang of that pyramid). We teach portion size. We teach concepts like balanced meals, healthy choices, and why fiber helps them poop.

Then after all that teaching, we still find ourselves arguing over every bite of green veggie, every pilfered lollipop, every suspiciously empty wrapper.

It’s just another of those less-than-fun aspects of parenting we signed on for when we brought home that little bundle of joy. So our issue is teaching why food allergens make that brownie off-limits. The next parent is dealing with an empty Twizzler bag under the bed of their overweight child, or a meltdown over a can of soda with their diabetic kid, or the pizza party for the child in a kosher or vegan family.

We all have food issues, I guess. And what works for one child seldom works for the next, so it’s difficult to offer advice. Tricks and bribes, rewards and consequences, explanations and threats – we probably try ’em all at least once, with varying success. The only constants are vigilance and time. We talk ourselves blue, pull out our hair, and wring our hands to shreds because we have to. It’s our job, and we do it in the hopes that someday our kids will get to the point where they can manage their food issues themselves, competently and confidently (and maybe even better than we manage our own, if we're honest with ourselves!). And believe it or not, most of them really do get there.

So what can we parents do for each other? Offer support, encouragement, ideas, and cheers – the things we never get from those very kids we’re trying to help, but that make us feel a little better when coming from other parents sharing our dilemma.

Together, we’re that much stronger.

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