The Social-Emotional Aspect of Eating: How to Encourage Healthy Habits in Kids
Many parents spend a great deal of time and money on putting together healthy meals for their children. They scour the internet for news on “good” fruits and vegetables, buy local and organic, and they try to make their child's lunch each day. However, these efforts often result in frustration because their children trade away the lunch of organic green push for a friend's cafeteria pizza slice.
There are prevalent social-emotional aspects of food and the ritual of eating that often begin early in childhood. The influence of peers and families can have a large impact on a child's comfort and interest in eating different kids of foods. Understanding the social influences on a child's eating choices and preferences can help parents to guide their child to healthy eating.
Show and Tell at Lunch
There is a complex interplay between cooking and eating at home, and what peers accept as “good” or “cool” food. This is no more apparent than at the school lunch table. Lunch time is not only for nutrition; it is also an important time for connection and bonding between peers. Children want to share their food, and there is a food hierarchy where students want to “fit in” by having food that is common and that other children like. Children who eat and enjoy their parent's healthy meals and snacks at home, may suddenly reject the tasty morsels when in front of their friends. Similarly, for ethnic cuisines, children may appreciate their country's cuisine at home, but be unwilling to bring the food to eat in front of their peers.
Lunch time, especially for the younger kids, becomes a “show and tell” where each child displays their food in a social ritual. Although children do notice what their peers have to eat, their overall opinion of a student is not affected greatly by their lunch. “Most kids won't shun a child for carrots,” states Dr. Cara Cudddy, a clinical psychologist who works at the Children's Hospital, Shaker Campus in the Cleveland Clinic. She directs the pediatric feeding disorder program, and she regularly works with kids and teens who are struggling with a variety of eating issues. Children may be reluctant to take certain types of food due to peer pressure, but the pressure won't make children distance themselves from others. Thus, if your child comes home stating that children do not wish to sit by him/her, you should talk to teachers and school administrators because the problem is most likely not food related and more severe.
What Should You Do if Your Child Experiences Food Peer Pressure?
Limit the setting. Tell your child, “What Janey does is different than what we do at home, and you can bring pizza once a week, not everyday.”
If no one is sitting by your child, it can't only be food-related. Explore the situation with the school staff.
Make children active participants in packing their lunch. Give them several healthy choices, stating, “You must bring one piece of fruit and one vegetable and you have several choices within those categories.”
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