It’s Not About Nutrition: 10 Questions with Dr. Dina Rose

Dr. Dina Rose is a food sociologist and mother who writes It’s Not About Nutrition, a blog about the”Art & Science of Teaching Kids to Eat Right.”   In this special post, Dr. Rose answers questions which were submitted by readers of CTF.

I know I should be eating (and serving) more whole foods, but how do I break the processed food habit? Cold turkey? I don’t think anyone in my home could handle it, we’re big on crackers and tortilla chips here. Is there a baby step approach?

Focus on variety. Don’t serve the same food either: a) two days in a row or b) more than once a day.  Once you’ve established this foundation, add a fruit or vegetable to every snack and every meal.  Eventually, use foods that seem the same (crackers and chips for instance) as if they are the same (i.e. no crackers or chips two days in a row) Read House Building 101.

You have written so much about emotional eating in our kids and making sure we foster a healthy REALTIONSHIP with food. This concern really plagues me as the mom to a nut-allergic kid, and two others who are dairy, sugar and gluten sensitive (so much so that these foods are contributing to symptoms of chronic illness.) My oldest is 7, and my other two are 2 and 4.

Combine our avoiding the above foods, along with trying to eat organic, non-toxic, healthful, whole foods and my kids have become a little obsessed with the “sugary treat” they get to choose every day (usually 2-3 organic sandwich cookies or a bowl of sorbet.)

Here’s the question: At what point do I need to be truly concerned with how obsessed my kids are with sweets?

I don’t know how much is too much “obsession,” or when you should start worrying about it, but it does seem as if there are so many necessary food restrictions in your home that asking your kids to be mindful of sweets and treats might just be one restriction too many.

You’re right to be worried about the impact of restriction on eating habits, though, because the research shows that it can lead to overeating.  The key is to make your kids feel like they have more control.  Here’s a four-pronged approach to keep the treat monster at bay:

My first suggestion is that you ease up a little on your organic-only goal, not because there’s anything wrong with eating organic, but because it adds another rule to your kids’ eating.  Your kids may not understand the difference between organic and non-organic food at this stage, but they certainly know that most foods are off limits. Then, I suggest you add more variety to the treat menu.  Not only will this make allowable foods seem more plentiful, but cycling through foods (even treat foods) will help set the foundation for new food acceptance.  Next, try giving your kids complete control over when they have their treats, even if when they want them is first thing in the morning.  Finally, once a week or so host a treat party: put out a pile of treats and let your kids go at them.  There’s one caveat: Your kids have to sit at the table while they eat – no games, no TV, no wandering around.

You’re used to holding a tight rein on food consumption, and this may be necessary for health reasons.  But broadening your food world a little, and transferring more control to your kids should calm your kids’ craving for sweets – a lot.  Read To Restrict or Not, That is the Question.

My child often eats large meals. He isn’t overweight, and we eat mostly healthy foods. Should I worry that he is over-eating and may end up being overweight?

One of the difficulties of parenting is that we have absolutely no way of knowing how much food our children need to eat.  There’s no way to gauge their hunger, their growth rate or their energy expenditure. (If only there were!)  Sadly, that means you can only do three things: 1) Teach your child to eat proportionally.  That means tipping meals (and snacks) in favor of fruits and vegetables, not pasta, steak or sweets. 2) Talk to your child about the difference between physical hunger and emotional hunger, making sure you don’t cue your child to eat for emotional reasons.  3) Encourage your child to pause before second helpings to allow the brain to catch up with the body.  Read How Much Should Your Kids Eat?, Using Sweets to Soothe the Soul, and The Power of the Pregnant Pause.

My daughter doesn’t like to eat any vegetables except carrots. She will eat fruit, though, so I often end up serving fruit with or instead of vegetables with dinner. Should I be encouraging her to eat more vegetables? If so, how do I start?

Stop worrying so much about vegetable consumption and focus more on laying the foundation for (and eventually introducing) new foods.  In practice, this means shifting your daughter’s overall diet in favor of fresh foods instead of processed ones, and consciously rotating through the foods she already likes. Then, look for ways you inadvertently give vegetables a bad rap. These two steps will probably increase your child’s interest in new foods.  When that happens, start asking your daughter to taste, but NOT EAT, some vegetables. Read 10 Ways Kids Learn to Hate Veggies, Unleash Your Toddler’s Inner Food Critic and Nix the Negativity.

I see what you are saying about nutrition labels, but what about things like cereal? Shouldn’t I be checking for vitamins, fiber, and sugar content?

Cereal seems like an exception to the no-label-reading rule, but it doesn’t have to be.  If your goal is to teach your children to eat real food, then all you have to do is select foods that look and taste like where they came from.  Cereals that look like their natural state generally have more fiber than cereals that don’t.  And the more cereals are processed, the further away from the real deal they are.  Steal cut oats look more like oats than quick-cooking ones, which look more like oats than instant.  Flakes have more fiber than puffs.  When it comes to sugar, the goal is to train your kids’ taste buds to enjoy flavors other than sweet, so choose cereals that don’t taste sweet – regardless of how much sugar they have.

If you still want to read cereal nutrition labels, then check one thing: that the first ingredient is whole grains.  Read Slackers Rule.

I’d like to get my kids away from typical snack foods, but I’m not sure where to start. Any tips? And what do your kids eat for snacks?

Snack is a time of day, not a type of food.  Anything can be a snack, but the best foods are fruits and vegetables.  If you set the intention of serving fruits and vegetables at every snack, and then allow your kids to have snacks foods when other people offer them, they’ll probably eat these foods in the right amount.  Plus, you’ll win points as the good mother.  Read: It Doesn’t Matter WHAT Your Kids Eat and Todd’s Law or The Guilt-Free Way to Say “YES” to Sweets.

Sometimes my daughter eats pretzels, sometimes carrots, sometimes cake, sometimes mango, sometimes popcorn, sometimes applesauce, sometimes cookies.  You get the point.

What is dinner like at your house? One of my kids won’t eat anything except grilled cheese sandwiches and yogurt smoothies. If I serve something else, she just doesn’t eat, and then I worry about whether she’s getting enough food. Should I force her to eat what I serve, give in to her grilled cheese sandwich demands, or let her go hungry?

Your child has an emotional chokehold on you. She knows you’ll give in, so she holds out for her favorites. You reinforce the system by giving in.  The next time, your daughter holds out. Then you give in. And so it goes.  You can’t solve this problem until you know why your daughter is so particular about what she eats: Is she afraid new foods will taste bad? Does she have a sensory sensitivity? Is she in a control struggle?  Read It’s Gross and You Can’t Make Me Eat It! Overcoming Resistance of New Foods and You Can’t Feed Your Way Out of a Picky-Eating Problem.

Once you know more about why your daughter eats the way she does: a) make sure you rotate foods for all meals and snacks, not just dinner. b) Include at least one food at dinner that you know your daughter likes. c) Serve your daughter a very small serving (1 bite of chicken and 3 peas). Make it clear that she can have more if she desires.  d) Discontinue after-dinner snacks and talk to your daughter about the relationship between her choice not to eat dinner and hunger.  Finally, recognize that there really is an upside to hunger.  Read When Less is More and The Upside of Hunger.

In The Ingredients Game, you say to “group processed foods together” and limit them. That makes sense, but how much should I battle my kids over not eating processed foods? Should I risk them not eating because they don’t get what they want?

If you want your kids to eat fewer processed foods, don’t buy them. That doesn’t mean you have to cook from scratch.  If you want cooking short cuts buy prepared foods that look like what they are such as rotisserie chicken and bagged salad.  Then, let your kids have processed foods whenever they’re offered outside the home.  Talk to your kids about proportion (eating more fresh, natural foods than processed foods) not nutrition and health.

Will your kids go hungry?  Read the answer to question 7 above.

I try to serve fruits and/or vegetables at every meal, but they don’t always get eaten. What do you think about “hiding” nutritious food inside other foods, for example, garbanzo beans in cookies or squash in mac and cheese?

Hiding nutritious food inside other foods is a great technique for YOU if it calms your fears about nutrition, but it won’t do much for your kids.  In fact, this is a technique that can make matters worse. (What will your kids think about nutritious foods when they find out what you’ve been up to?)  If you want your kids to eat more fruits and vegetables try serving them more frequently: not just at every meal (including breakfast) but at every snack too.  The more frequently your kids see these foods the more likely they are to eat them.  Plus, one or two bites a few times over the course of the day add up, probably to more than your kids will eat if fruits and vegetables are relegated to dinner.  Then, place fruits and vegetables prominently in the house and “hide” the junk where it’s not visible.  Read 10 Ways Kids Learn to Love Vegetables and Feng Shui for Food.

My husband and I are fairly adventurous eaters, but we both have several people in our families that are “picky eaters.” Now that we have children, we want them to grow up eating a wide variety of foods rather than be limited. Do you think being “picky” is genetic? What is the number one thing we should do to raise adventurous eaters?

ALWAYS serve foods you and your husband like and don’t freak out when your kids don’t eat as much as you would like. Read How Cottage Cheese Changed My Life and Using Restaurants Right!

If I was going to make one change to improve my children’s eating habits, what should I do?

Pay attention to how often you give your children the same experience – same flavor (sweet), same texture (crunchy), same look (beige) – and then vary it. Don’t overlook drinks in your analysis.  Read The Variety Masquerade.

The bottom line: For more practical and non-crazy-making eating tips, visit It’s Not About Nutrition where Dr. Rose continues to change the conversation from nutrition to habits.