The first bowl of porridge was too hot. And the second bowl was too cold. But the third bowl was just right.
That was Goldilocks’ dilemma, and it’s the same one facing nutrition specialists, pediatricians, and others concerned with children’s diets: How do you teach a child to handle snack foods in a sensible way?
Too many restrictions tend to backfire and leave the child craving more of the forbidden food. No restrictions doesn’t work either, as the child fails to develop self-control.
That is the essence of what Dr. Brandi Rollins of Penn State University and her colleagues found when they examined 25 years of studies on pediatric nutrition and published their conclusions in the journal Pediatric Obesity.
“We know the opposite of what works,” Rollins, a research assistant professor at the university’s Center for Childhood Obesity Research, told Healthline. “We’re looking for something in the middle.”
Looking at Both Perspectives
Instead of a parent-dominant approach with many restrictions, Rollins suggested considering both the parents’ and children’s perspectives.
Rollins said researchers focused their attention on the extensive literature on parenting, which goes back nearly 100 years.
“There is a small, yet growing, body of evidence to suggest that allowing a more moderate level of access to snack foods and treats, like candy, in a structured way may be beneficial in helping children learn to consume these treats in moderation,” Rollins said in a press release. “However, more studies and evidence are needed on this topic.”
She tries to approach the subject in a logical way.
“Children want candy,” she said. “We don’t want to overburden parents [with a complicated program] and we’re looking at ways candy can be managed in the home.”
The subject is complicated by the fact that there is likely to be more than one parent and more than one child in the household.
“If we’re doing an intervention program, we need to know if what they did with one child worked with others,” she said. “Usually whatever that one child was doing, all the children were doing. But there are differences in temperament. Suppose one child is more impulsive than the others or they respond badly to restrictions. And what happens with the other parent? Is the second parent onboard?”
Researchers received primary support from the National Confectioners Association for this literature review.
Some Suggestions for Parents
Kristi King is a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. She praised the research team for gathering the peer-reviewed studies that are out there on feeding behaviors.
“It is a complicated issue that relies solely on parental reporting,” she told Healthline.
Acknowledging parental anxiety, she suggested developing some kind of structure, and made the following suggestions:
- Become a role model for the eating behaviors you wish your child to follow
- Decide what to serve and allow the child to determine how much they will eat
- Have a routine for accessing food (what foods are available and how they access them, whether by asking or if it’s OK to help themselves)
- Allowing foods in moderation and keeping the lines of communication open regarding what is appropriate to eat on a regular basis and what is consider “treat food”
Dr. Robert D. Murray, FAAP, is a pediatrician and human nutrition specialist who practices in Columbus, Ohio. He’s done a lot of work with nutrition programs in schools and calls that one area where children’s diets have shown considerable improvement.
Schools present “a complex group of kids, with different backgrounds and from different cultures,” he told Healthline. “We’d love to have the money to provide more flexibility. In this country we serve 32 million lunches a day and 13 million breakfasts. If you raise the cost by a dime, it will cost millions.”
Murray sees parents as crucial to helping children develop good eating habits.
“Parental behavior is modifiable,” said Murray, a professor of human nutrition at Ohio State University. “Almost always, parents can apply a structure that will limit the kids from getting a lot of unhealthy food.”
He suggested a structured day with three meals and a mini-meal in mid-afternoon.
“The problem is when parents provide a lot of food in the house and leave it to kids to graze,” he said. “When kids come home from school, they’re hungry.”
Snacks should include something nutritious as well as sweet, such as an apple with peanut butter or yogurt with nuts.
“Yogurt with fruit in it is better than a fruit drink,” he said.
Parents Strike Delicate Balance
The issue reverberates in kitchens all over this country, as parents try to walk the fine line between strict rules and no rules.
Christine and Michael, who live in Los Angeles with their 16-year-old daughter, never put candy in her lunchbox when she was small.
“I was afraid that if we said ‘no’ all the time, there would be a backlash, and she needed to learn how to have junk in moderation,” Christine recalled.
Betty, who lives in Northern California with her son Jason, who is 11, took a somewhat different approach.
“I always pack a treat in Jason’s lunch. I can't control what he eats ... what he trades and what he shares. I pack lunches for him like I wish they were packed for me,” she said.
On the other hand, there is no soda in the home, but it’s something he may have when they are out.
Seamus, who lives in Silicon Valley with his wife and teenage sons, tends to believe in all things with moderation.
“We keep fruit in the house — apples, grapes, bananas generally. And I bring home ‘weird’ fruit whenever I find it at the green grocer. We have fun with that and I think it has helped the kids get the idea of trying new things,” he said. “One favorite is the ‘hairy eyeball fruit,’ something otherwise known as rambutan. They’re sure ugly, but really tasty.”
Sounds like something all three bears could enjoy.