Does Parental Modeling Affect Kids’ Food Behavior? One Expert Says “No”

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 10, 2011

Not long after I started The Lunch Tray I told you about Dina Rose, the blogger behind It’s Not About Nutrition.  Dina’s a mom with a PhD in sociology from Duke University who teaches workshops and provides private counseling on kid and food issues, especially picky eating.

Dina’s latest post may raise some eyebrows.  In it, she takes on the conventional wisdom that kids will eventually grow to like vegetables (or fruits, or whatever the issue is) simply by seeing their parents eat and enjoy those foods.

Back when my second child would eat no vegetables at all (a situation that’s slowly but steadily improving), I used to cling to that notion like a life raft. And I did so in part because of my general agreement with Ellyn Satter, another kid-and-food expert, who believes that giving speeches about the healthful properties of vegetables creates pressure on kids that will inevitably backfire.  According to Satter, it’s only your modeling (along with a pressure-free environment and the passage time) that will lead to improved eating habits.

But apparently Dina thinks this idea is misguided:

I’m not suggesting that you shouldn’t model good eating habits—it’s definitely a good idea for your kids to see you eat an apple every now and then—but I am suggesting that modeling alone won’t get you where you want to go.

Imagine being told that the best way to teach your kids to get dressed is to let them “catch” you wearing clothes.

She then gives a lot of reasons why the modeling theory may be flawed and concludes with a most un-Satter-like proposition:   what parents say about food and food choices carries more weight than what parents do.

If you have a few minutes, take a look at Dina’s post and then leave a comment below.  I’m very curious to hear what TLT readers think about this issue.

 

 

{ 21 comments… read them below or add one }

Shira March 10, 2011 at 8:51 am

Thank goodness for Dina’s post! I have felt this way for a long time, and thought I was the only one. My youngest is also terribly picky despite the fact he has been exposed to a steady stream of healthy food (I’m a vegetarian, and am pretty careful about what I eat). Tofu, legumes all sorts of veggies, he’s been exposed every day of his life, and still won’t try them (okay we are also making some slow progress on veggies).

Another argument I often hear “experts” say is if you grow your own veg, and have the kids help they’ll eat it. No dice on that one either. I’ve grown my own vegetables (March-Oct) for at least 10 years. My kids don’t know anything different than helping in the garden and my younger one continues to resist.

Thanks Bettina for sharing this and making me feel less like a bad mom! :)

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 10, 2011 at 10:00 am

Shira – Thank you SO much for sharing this with me. Hearing of your experience with your son and watching my own veggie-phobe, both of whom are nurtured by nutritionally aware, veggie-loving parents, I’m coming to wonder if, once you strip away all environmental factors, there really is some innate fear of new/different/vegetable foods that no amount of strategizing can overcome. In fact, I may post about this a little later and will excerpt your comment in my post. You’ve made ME feel like less of a bad mom. :-)

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Jen March 10, 2011 at 8:56 am

“Would you really call a cackle of kids who eat their peas—happily, winningly, and with gusto—“healthy eaters” if they also habitually eat a bunch of cookies, cakes and donuts? If they turn to snacks when they’re bored? If they tantrum when new foods hit their plates?”

To the first question, yes. I don’t believe habitually eating cookies, cakes, and donuts makes one not a “healthy eater”. We could argue that that’s a self-interested judgement call because I’m not giving them up no matter what nutritionists say, and that would be a different discussion.

To the latter, sure, I agree those are poor behaviors, but again, I wouldn’t discount those children as “poor eaters”. Honestly: they’re children. Toddlers and little ones are still within the age range where tantrums are an age appropriate (if tiresome) response to being asked to do something they don’t want to do.

Yes, modeling alone won’t achieve your goal. You’ll also have to control the food your kids have access to at home – you can’t control demand all the time, but you certainly control supply within the bounds of your home. I hardly think anyone is saying the way to get your kids to eat broccoli is to eat it yourself to the exclusion of all other realities.

But then, my 2 year old eats broccoli, green beans, carrots, etc. She’s woefully underweight because she doesn’t consume enough calories to gain weight, but we’ve never struggled with getting her to eat veggies. (Proteins are another matter *sigh*.)

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june E. March 10, 2011 at 8:58 am

Actually, I agree with her. Though I think it is both. My kids are very aware of healthy food, but I have served that and talked about that from the beginning. We activiely discuss why certain eating habits are bad. BUT, if I only said that and didn’t walk the talk, all the talk wouldn’t matter. Like, I say we need a clean house and why, but since all they see is me being messy, it’s hard for them to believe that that is really important – nor is neat what they are used to. They are, however, very use to eating good food. But also, in all fairness to parents that don’t have kids who love veggies and such, my kids do – I think it’s just their taste buds. I love them and they love them. And they have since they were tiny, so…I think the talking has made them aware of better choices though – that and for my son reading the kids version of Fast Food nation. Also, I do allow “bad” foods once in a while, so they aren’t fetishized.

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Christina @ Spoonfed March 10, 2011 at 9:24 am

Bettina, you already know where I’m going to land on this one… ;-)

But let me share what I just posted on Dina’s site. I don’t always agree with her, but on this issue I think she’s spot-on:

“You’re absolutely right, Dina! It’s simply not enough to offer healthful food or to eat it yourself. Kids need to be educated about where their food comes from, how it affects their bodies and why we make the food decisions we do. Only then will they be able to make smart food decisions of their own.

If kids don’t know *why* we choose the organic produce or the humanely raised animal products or real food over fake food, then they aren’t really learning anything. Time and again, I talk to parents who tell me their kids are educated about food because the *parent* buys well and eats well. Then I mention something like “food dye” or “high-fructose corn syrup” to the kid, and I get a blank stare. These kids have no idea about this stuff, and they aren’t going to magically absorb it, especially in the face of crushing marketing and peer pressure. So, yes, parents need to actually talk to their kids about food, not just put healthy food in front of them.”

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KathieW March 10, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Amen.

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Julie March 10, 2011 at 10:07 am

I am pretty lucky. My 5yo son has eaten vegetables, largely without complaint or argument, from the beginning.

I agree that modeling is pretty lame. My husband is picky about the vegetables he will eat, and refuses to eat or even be in the same room with some of them. We try new ones regularly, including ones that I don’t care for, because it’s fun to try new food, or old food cooked new ways.

If modeling really worked, my son would eat no vegetables except for what little he sees The Dad eat. And he would eat huge portions of the other stuff served, because that’s what The Dad does (he only eats one “meal” a day, but grazes and eats sugar the rest of the day.) And he would drink soda non-stop. I dunno — maybe he’s just not old enough to be into the “I wanna be just like Dad” stage.

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Bri March 10, 2011 at 1:50 pm

It’s almost never, in my mind, a smart idea to say that ONLY ONE particular thing works — whether you’re talking about feeding kids, washing wine stains out of a carpet, or solving a major budget problem at work. The exclusionary approach doesn’t tend to be the best way to go anywhere in life, so why would we want to be so narrow in our ideas at the dinner table?
My kids are up and down with veggies; one, right now, is more “Up” than down, but the other is more “Down” than up. However, last night they both ate beets. I don’t know why; I don’t know how; I just know that it’s not magic, nor is it rocket science. Modeling goes a long way towards NORMALIZING healthy food, so it becomes somewhat less scary (and somewhere in their heads, I think they start to internalize the idea that plates should have color on them at every meal), but it’s not the whole answer. Consistency, patience, creativity (both in presentation and in encouragement), and age-appropriate expectations will do a large part of the rest of the work.
And…the whole thing about how we’re modeling when we eat the “bad” foods too? I go back to my creed: If you want healthy kids AND healthy adults in your house, make sure you EAT LIKE YOUR KIDS. Feed yourself the way you WANT them to eat. Not just because it’s modeling, but because it helps set those realistic expectations, and it helps you realize that it’s OK to eat brownies sometimes, too…and it’s OK for THEM to eat brownies, even if they didn’t have a perfect portion of broccoli every night this week.

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Dina Rose March 10, 2011 at 2:04 pm

I’m so glad to hear all the discussion about modeling. I do want to point out that I’m not saying that you don’t have to model, or that you can stop modeling and leave a void. I am saying that modeling isn’t enough, and a lot of parenting advice seems to suggest it is.

I also want to point out that you absolutely CAN teach kids to eat vegetables (and anything else you want them to eat…such as protein), but you have to do more than eat vegetables (or protein) in their presence. You have to reduce the pressure, (and I agree with Satter on this), but you also have to teach children how to try new foods, provide foods that are tasty, convey the importance of eating foods in proportion to their healthful benefits, and do a host of active teaching.

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Bettina Elias Siegel March 10, 2011 at 2:06 pm

Dina – thanks for stopping by to add your thoughts and for writing such a thought-provoking post!

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anthony March 10, 2011 at 2:08 pm

isn’t it possible that different inducements work differently on different kids?

kids have different learning styles of learning information (some are good at old-school rote memorization; others are kinesthetic; etc.). so no one teaching method is best for all kids. i find it hard to believe that one approach to food-learning is best for everyone either.

probably some kids respond best to modeling, others to language, others to participation in growing & preparing, and others just to the food itself.

seems a person should make some assessment about what method of delivery gets the food bug planted in the particular kid, and then run with it.

idk, i don’t have kids. just sayin’…

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Lauren March 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm

My Educational Psychology professor would applaud this! Haha. Bravo, I totally agree with you.

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Renee March 10, 2011 at 2:16 pm

I agree very much with Bri. I think modeling is INCREDIBLY important, but I have never thought that it alone would be an answer to anything. People need information and access as well.

There have been studies that have shown that parents who have books in their house, and enjoy reading them, have kids who enjoy reading. The same does not hold true for parents who simply read books to their kids. The modeling part here is apparently a lot more influential than being read to. However, if a parent enjoyed reading books, but never bought books for their children, or taught them to read, how would a child learn to love reading?

And there will always be kids who have modeling, access, and information, and still don’t like reading, (or maybe vegetables.)

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Alissa August 17, 2011 at 9:40 am

Hi Bettina! I am new to your site, and so glad I found it…I have been a devoted fan of Ellyn Satter since my 2.5 year old was a baby, and for 2 years I found her advice to be very effective, but I’ve had a similar experience to you where my daughter went from eating tons of fruit (although not much from the veggie department) to basically taking a bite here and there but generally avoiding anything fresh. I recently came across Dina’s site and really like a lot of her ideas but have been struggling to reconcile some aspects with Satter, so this discussion has been so helpful to me! After reading Dina’s site and being very frustrated by my daughter’s change in eating (which happened around the same time she started preschool and has been exposed to junky foods on a daily basis), I have begun requiring her to try at least one very small bite of a new food when presented – she needs to chew a little bit, but can spit it out if she wants, and this has led to her declaring some new foods yummy. I have also gotten her excited about “testing” foods, and am actively teaching some basics around what foods we should eat a lot of or just save for treats, and feel like she’s made progress already. I’m now thinking that maybe the strict hands off Satter approach might not always be the best approach, and a little education and encouragement (without pressure to eat or swallow anything) might not be such a bad thing.

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Bettina Elias Siegel August 17, 2011 at 9:52 am

Alissa – First, welcome!

it does sound like you and I have had a very similar path with our kids. I went from being a devoted Satter-ite to not so sure, and even though I still inherently agree with Satter’s approach, I certainly “slipped” when frustration overtook me and found myself giving speeches, requiring bites (and allowing spitting), etc. I don’t know how much of TLT you’ve explored, but if you search “veggie phobe” in the search box you’ll see a range of posts that chart my son’s evolution from never eating ANY vegetables to being much, much more willing to try them. This year he’s continually surprised me by just digging into some veggie-filed food that heretofore would have been a non-starter. He still won’t go near most veggies in their purest form, like a carrot stick or a sauteed snow pea, but veggies mixed into dishes are getting more and more acceptable.

I think the upshot here is that no one “expert” approach is ever one-size-fits-all. Some kids are easily “Ferber-ized,” some are traumatized by that approach. The longer I’m a parent, the more I believe in trusting your instincts about your child and it sounds like you’ve hit on a very good balance with your daughter. And when things seem bleak, remember you’re in this for the long haul. When my son was your daughter’s age, I would never have imagined it would take until he was nine to get where we are, but so be it.

Good luck and let me know how it goes!

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Alissa August 17, 2011 at 1:35 pm

Bettina, thanks for responding so quickly! The reminder about being in this for the long haul is appreciated…right now my kids are 2.5 and 5 mos, so it’s hard to appreciate how many years we have to work on this stuff :) I have been poking around your site quite a bit, and am especially interested in your school efforts, as I am currently quite frustrated by the uphill battle I’m fighting now that my daughter is being bombarded with so much food I’d never give her (seriously, do 2 year olds need a willy wonka themed day at camp with a chocolate fountain???), so I’m gearing myself up to try to influence some change. I’m sure this won’t be the only conversation on your site I’ll get involved in!

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Bettina Elias Siegel August 18, 2011 at 11:02 am

Alissa – just FYI, I tried to leave a comment on your site, Simply Wholesome Kitchen, but if you don’t fit into one of the categories (Wordpress, Google, etc.) it doesn’t let you comment! So I’ll say here that I was intrigued by your pumpkin muffins and plan to try them out! :-)

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Alissa August 18, 2011 at 8:14 pm

Wow, I had no idea that people have to fit into a category to comment on my blog! I’ve been wanting to upgrade for a while…that might be the push I’ve needed :) Anyway, thanks for checking out my site and I hope you like the muffins – they are a big hit in my house right now!

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Bettina Elias Siegel August 20, 2011 at 8:03 am

Just sent you an email re: those muffins! :-) And yes, as Christina said, a Name/URL category would let everyone reply. Definitely worth doing.

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Christina @ Spoonfed August 18, 2011 at 8:23 pm

Popping in here because I’ve been getting notifications about new comments in this thread… Alissa: Just wanted to tell you that you can change those comment settings to allow an option called “Name/URL,” which lets anyone comment. Hope that helps! ;-)

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mommm!!! June 22, 2012 at 4:02 am

I think that there are a couple of things that are going on that haven’t been mentioned in regards to picky eaters. I think it’s all in the taste from the beginning. Truly. I cooked all of my son’s baby food so he really has no memory of anything tasting bad, which, has made him a more adventurous eater as he got older.

And then there’s sugar. I didn’t introduce my son to actual table sugar of any kind until he was 2 and I think it was in his birthday cake. His first birthday cake was sweetened with applesauce. Sooooo…..what happens is, artificial sweeteners, including hfcs, are perceived by the taste buds as being sweeter than the old white cane sugar. Over time and repeated exposure, regular sugar doesn’t taste as sweet and doesn’t deliver the concentrated punch that is available in so many processed foods aimed at kids. An apple tastes bland when tasted with fruit snacks. Sodium levels are kind of the same. Prolonged repeated exposure to high sodium levels (like in fast food) will build up your tolerance for high levels of salt and you’ll be less likely to perceive something as being too salty when in fact it is.

So exposure to sugars and sodium via processed foods consumed by kids conditions their palates to crave intensified or enhanced flavors. Of course they don’t want an apple or some broccoli when they can have fruit snacks and sun chips or worse. Jarred baby food is often preserved with citric acid, which imparts a tang that doesn’t exist when I cook and puree those same foods myself. I don’t know anyone that sprinkles a little citric acid on their squash after roasting it, yanno? An infants palate stores this away in it’s memory.

AND…..most of our “taste” is in the olfactory, which is why when you have a stuffed up nose everything tastes bland. Also, for instance, if you were tasting a wine with a friend and your friend described a lychee character in the wine, but lets say you didn’t get that flavor from the wine. It’s probably because you’ve never had lychee not because your friend is somehow better versed in all things wine. Just like someone who has never smelled jasmine or honeysuckle….they wouldn’t know the difference between the two. The point is that we draw from our memory of flavors and aromas that we’ve had in the past to ascertain likes or dislikes of what is currently in our mouth at any given moment. So if your child’s first experience of peas was badly prepared peas, they are probably going to be reluctant to try them again, but being kids, can’t verbalize to you why. Or if they are used to preservatives in foods, then getting them to eat the real thing might be more challenging. Or if they are exposed to processed foods, regardless of how healthy you might think they are, getting them to suddenly eat au natural at dinner time could be a problem.

Sure, I think that being a good role model helps, but it should be with a healthy dose of realism. I’m not anti junk food (I bake most of the sweets in my house rather than buy them) but I am anti processed food. And I think that has been the bigger difference in cultivating my child’s eating habits. And, yes, I am his role model because sadly I’m so not the norm of what he’s exposed to out there in the world where he’s surrounded by hoardes of kids who bring processed and sugary foods in their lunchboxes by the truckload every day to school. He has to live in Twinkie hell. But when he finally tried one? He thought they were greasy and plastic~y tasting and he didn’t like the weird film it left in his mouth. (go me and my modeling!) But this is a kid that hates canned whipped cream, too. (cuz the whip cream I make is just too good) So, eh.

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