Parenting Dilemma: Kids and Weight

Some of us have kids who seem to naturally flock to sports and physical activity. And while they might not resist every food temptation typical for their age group, they somehow pull together a pretty solid diet. Still others of us have children who aren’t necessarily the best eaters or exercisers but who seem (for now) more or less immune to the weight gain that might inspire better habits. Finally, some of us parent kids who truly struggle with weight. And even while poor food choices and low activity levels clearly contribute to most children’s problems, occasionally there are kids who, despite good habits, continue the battle into adulthood.

For our part, as parents, we see both sides. We worry for our kids’ health. We hope for their social acceptance even as we encourage them not to depend on it. We want them to take good care of their bodies, enjoy the physical energy and potential of youth. We want them to be and feel their best. Meanwhile, we want them to know they’re amazing, beautiful and beloved just the way they are. We know what we want to do, how we want them to feel, but then there’s the sticky reality of it. What’s the right message exactly? How do we figure the perfect balance in communicating and cultivating all our good intentions for our kids’ health?

A New York Times article, “Parenting and Food: Eat Your Peas. Or Don’t. Whatever.”, picks up this dicey parenting issue. It’s a discussion of the blurry lines between how to foster healthy habits without inhibiting a healthy self-concept. As any parent (or person who has any recollection of the awkward adolescent years) knows, taking on this issue can involve navigating an emotional mine field. One wrong move, and you face an explosion of tempers, guilt, and other psychological shrapnel. The long-term stakes, we learn, are high. Research has shown that fathers’ communication about and even “attention to” their daughters’ weight can raise their “risk of eating disorders.” Children of parents who promoted dieting “were significantly more likely to remain overweight than those whose parents didn’t.”

Frank Bruni, the author of both the Times article and recent memoir Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, illustrates the precarious landscape with stories of hesitant parents attempting their best acrobatic acts. He gives us stories of parents who’ve diligently striven for “balanced meals and restrained portions.” On the other hand, Bruni gives us another angle of parental concern, a resistance to what some parents see as a tendency toward broader deprivation – a missing the forest through the trees if you will. As one mother put it, she wants to instill healthy habits but not deny her daughter the basic “psychological pleasures that come from sitting at a table and enjoying a meal.”

Bruni’s article ends by rounding up several points of expert consensus. Most are basic and commonsensical. First, of course, he says parents should model healthy eating and exercise habits. It’s the old “Do what I do, not what I say” principle. Other effectual strategies include stocking the house with healthy options and planning dinners with homemade fare. Finally, he says with a personal note, it’s important to find a substitute “activity” that can provide a “similar emotional gratification” children may have previously associated with food.

I found Bruni’s article engaging, relevant and thought-provoking. It got the Worker Bees and I talking. We had a slew of questions but few clear answers. (Isn’t that always the case in parenting though?) What do kids need and want to hear? How do parents inspire the best balance between emotional self-acceptance and physical self-investment? How much should we as parents demonstrate and divulge of our own struggles exactly?

I thought I’d take up the conversation here with you all. I’ll throw out a few thoughts, and I hope you’ll add yours to the discussion.

Clean up the family diet and environment.

A physiological point first… Parents want to help their kids make good food choices and get plenty of physical activity. However, there’s another often missed piece to the puzzle. The increasing presence of toxins in our everyday environment and food supply can contribute to a myriad of health problems, including weight issues. Toxins, particularly in children, can disrupt basic hormonal balance. This disturbance can throw off the metabolic processes responsible for energy conversion and, particularly in tandem with a poor diet, boost fat storage. It’s a good excuse for explaining why a “good diet” entails more than a menu: it means fostering an educated and thoughtful mindset toward eating and health.

Be honest (first with yourself) about your relationship with food and/or your physical self-image.

Perhaps having lived a similar experience, we can identify on some level with our kids. If we were overweight once upon a time, we can understand what it’s like to struggle with weight as a child/teenager. Yet, once in a while we have to step back and ask ourselves if our level of concern has more to do with our child or our own past? In short, are we helping or projecting – or some combination of the two? Maybe we’re still struggling with weight or other body image issues. Regardless of how we approach our health and what priorities we focus on, our children are undeniable witnesses to our lives. They see our daily endeavors, and they undeniably pick up on our self-talk. What messages are we sending (consciously and unconsciously)?

If your child is old enough, have a heart-to-heart about experiences with health, body image and weight. Divulge honestly – but selectively. You can show your kids you identify without burdening them. Most importantly, talk about where you get your sense of perspective. What guides you, motivates you and grounds you day to day? What have you learned that you wish you knew earlier in your life? What do you hope they enjoy about living a healthy life and taking care of themselves?

Talk about what health really means.

It’s pretty easy for kids to grow up not really having a clear understanding of health. Hey, most adults don’t get it either. If I’m not sick, I must be healthy, right? Health as a concept can be a random swirl of disconnected images for kids: food pyramids, sweaty gyms, sports icons, a salad bar. How do they put it together? What does it mean to be healthy? To feel healthy?

In the vast array of images and messages out there, kids have to be pretty thrown by the paradoxical shape of it all. On the one hand, there’s infinite fun to be had in downing every variety of fast food, sodas, energy drinks, chips and other snack abominations (just look at the youth-centered commercials). On the other, there are tabloid articles about celebrity crash diets and stories of their three hour a day workout routines. Our culture encourages either disregarding or punishing the body – making a joke of physical health or exercising/depriving ourselves into the ground. The result? As a culture we don’t have the most comfortable relationships with our bodies. It’s little surprise that many of our kids absorb this mindset.

Parents, unfortunately, have a lot of ground to fill in. Find a chance to talk about what health means to you personally. How did you come to learn about healthy eating? Why do you make the choices you do? What gets you motivated to stay active, to keep your stress under control? When do you feel the best physically? Ask them what makes them feel healthy, strong and rejuvenated? Is there a way you can help support those experiences (e.g. emotional support or family activities)? Let it be an open and continuing conversation. Let it be a catalyst for healthy changes and experimentation. Let it be a challenge to your family to play more, cook more, do more, get out more.

Talk about what living really means.

This website is all about health, yes. Nonetheless, I put health squarely into a large picture of happiness and vitality. Too often the messages kids get come off as instructive but less than relevant and inspiring. In the midst of navigating the social scene, figuring out an identity, and finding their way through school and other responsibilities, dry details can quickly fall on deaf ears. Consider a different angle. We hear a lot of success stories from people who have overcome serious health issues, dropped weight that they’d wanted to lose for years (or decades), and/or turned around their lifestyle to gain a whole new sense of energy in their lives. A common thread in so many of their accounts is a sense of self-investment. Whether a serious medical scare that made them realize how precious (and endangered) their lives were or the culmination of a deep soul-searching, something sparked a novel sense of ownership. Their health mattered more because they’d chosen to see it and value it in a new way.

Maybe talking to kids about real health ultimately means talking about life. Owning your health necessitates – on some level – knowing and respecting yourself. It’s a self-commitment after all. The more self-confidence and self-respect we have, the more likely we are to invest in ourselves.

For kids who struggle with weight and body image, too often the goal is outside themselves, remote and elusive. How can the goal finally be authentically personal? What does it mean to dig down and learn to tune out the noise in life – the social clamor, the media messages? What’s there to listen to once you reach the other side of the commotion? How, finally, do they see themselves there? What does their vision of a healthy and happy life look like from that vantage point? Kids, like the rest of us, shape their health a step at a time. Maybe a parent’s best role is to help them start down their own path.

And now…let me know what you think. What should kids hear growing up? How can a parent walk the line to empower their kids’ overall health and well-being? How do we avoid the traps that either alienate or enable? I look forward to reading your thoughts. Thanks for reading.

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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66 thoughts on “Parenting Dilemma: Kids and Weight”

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  1. I think Mark planted a listening device in my home, has been monitoring our progress and issues, and has been turning that intelligence into these last few posts.

    Just had a conversation with my twelve-year-old son about this toda

  2. I think Mark planted a listening device in my home, has been monitoring our progress and issues, and has been turning that intelligence into these last few posts.

    Just had a conversation with my twelve-year-old son about this today. Wii Fit still tells him he’s “Overweight”. This was enough to drop his mood before going to school and is characteristic of how his self image has been suffering lately as my wife and I drop weight by going primal. We reminded him that he’s still growing and that he doesn’t need to feel guilty, per se, but instead be conscious of all the choices he makes and the effects they can have. Of course, his spirits lifted a bit when we realized he hasn’t changed the height data he entered when we bought Wii Fit (long before we found your blog, back when we thought it would help us) and he has grown since.

    We have, of course, applied the blueprint to our lives and even altered the eating of our children to coincide with the changes we’ve made. However, busy lives, hasty food stops, and school lunches do not necessarily a budding Grok create. I do think that half the battle is won, considering that he has become more conscious of his choices and absolutely loves the naturally raised farm meats we’ve been buying. However, a pre-adolescent appetite is not always the easiest thing for him to control and when he gets home he turns into a human Hoover.

    Perfect timing on this post, Mark, with regard to our family situation. As always, very helpful and inspiring. I will talk to him more and even have him look over the post and links.

    1. Hilarious.

      All joking aside, this is an extremely important post. Teaching the children healthy eating habits is very high up on the list, as they will keep habits learned young throughout their lives.

      The ability of a child to stay healthy is definitely a primal concern for many parents.

  3. I have gone over this issue, time and time again in my head. What did my parents do wrong? What could they have done differently? (my weight issues started early, I wore womens sizes in fourth grade and by 7th grade i weighed more than 300lbs.) Here is What i think they did wrong (They did the VERY BEST they were able to do)

    My parents not only modeled bad eating habits, but even more problimatic they modeled negative self images.

    The were boundary issues, i was more like a third adult than a child and learned to “worry” about my parents problems…that pain traslated in escape..through food.

    My mom confronted my weight with alternating between discussions of concern & making fun of me to make me feel bad. I clearly got i wasn’t good enought the way I was. Mom had her own weight issues and addressed my issues out of fear, rather than love.

    OK…so what could they have done different? AKA my advice:

    1. Model good habits with food and exersize AND ESPECIALLY model Positive self love and acceptance. They won’t get that they are whole and beautiful as is…if you don’t believe that about yourself.

    2. Always come from a place of LOVE (instead of fear). Regardless of WHAT YOU SAY..They will FEEL this.

    3. Teach your children (again by example) to fully feel and except their emotions, rather than to escape them thru food or a million other things.

    Lastly…accept the fact…that you kids will live their lives…you will surely give them some issues…they will BE OK. Trust in this….and I am willing to bet you will act in their best interest 🙂

  4. Really great post, Mark. It’s so hard to walk the fine line:

    …between restriction and allowing too many unhealthy foods. My mother never forced us to eat a health-food-only diet but also required we eat well-balanced meals. What that means is we were allowed a sweet after dinner, but still had to eat well the rest of the day. I know plenty of people who grew up in a house where food choices were restricted for health reasons, and they rebelled as soon as they could buy their own fast food (not to mention in college…). Then again, there are parents who allow kids to eat whatever they feel like–chicken nuggets six nights in a row–and the child never learns what healthy eating means.

    …between admonishing and not taking notice. For a child or teen, hearing you’re overweight can lead to a lifetime of battling weight. But some overweight kids (like those who have high cholesterol and high blood pressure) need to hear about healthy eating from their parents.

  5. Argh! This conversation makes me nuts! Make sure you and your kids get plenty of exercise, walk or ride your bikes to school. Pack their lunches. Monitor their spending so they can’t buy unhealthy snacks! Get rid of the TV altogether. Put them in sports, swim lessons, Ballroom Dancing…who cares, anything they might like if they are not inclined toward sports. Turn off the Wii and go for a hike. You, the parents, are in charge!

    1. Not that being active isn’t a good idea, but diet and not exercise dictates weight and diet is the critical first step to overall health. Obviously we can’t get to our peak of health without healthy activity, but we can’t even get started on a path to health without a healthy diet.

      Exercise can do some repartitioning from fat to muscle, but if the kids are eating low-fat whole grain crap and incipient type II diabetics as a result, it won’t matter if the TV is unplugged or where they spend their time. They won’t enjoy sports or other activities if their bodies are distorted and held back by frankenfoods and atrocious eating habits.

      Fill your home with healthy foods, model healthy eating and healthy attitudes towards your body… Mark is exactly right on this one.

    2. Oh, and upon re-reading, I realize what it really is that I disagree with: your approach is way, waaaay too controlling. My sister likes to parent that way and is in a constant war of wills with her oldest.

      Not for me.

      The other choices of parenting styles aren’t limited to total control or complete permissiveness or negotiation and wheedling.

      We prohibit nothing, but don’t serve anything but healthy, whole, high-fat foods at our table. At day care, the youngest eats what she likes of what is served (she already dislikes cheerios for some wonderful reason). The older kids eat what they want when they’re at school.

      You can’t force kids to be healthy. That’s like trying to hold back a river. In my experience, 1) being with your children and available to your children for questions and support and 2) modeling healthy behaviors is the best way to help kids become responsible adults. I’ve seen far too much of the problems that controlling personalities can cause when I was growing up. I refuse to repeat those mistakes.

  6. This is a really sensitive issue for me. I come from a household with a very “health-conscious” mother, and I was not born with her naturally thin body type. I was extremely active, averaging about 20 hours of dance per week, plus school day sports, but even at 12, my shape was entirely different from hers.

    Long, long, long story short, I am approaching the one year anniversary of being mostly “clean” from a debilitating stretch of four years with a very active eating disorder. A key, key trigger for me were my mother’s comments, which were never overtly upsetting. I would beg her to PLEASE stop with subtle hints and “healthy suggestions,” but she never listened and it always made things worse. I have forgiven her for this because I don’t think she ever understood.

    What I am trying to say is, parents, PLEASE, PLEASE, PLEASE DON’T.

    Lead by example. But don’t make another person’s body your business. Just don’t.

    1. I’m so sorry, Alice. You are right the “subtle hints and healthy suggestions” are no help.

    1. I’m not sure I understand what exactly us having a Wii Fit says other
      than “we like to play games sometimes”. Please enlighten me as to what else it might be communicating. If I’m not
      mistaken, Mark has written before about playing Guitar Hero with his
      son. Believe me, the Wii Fit was purchased a year and a half ago and I just discovered this blog this past summer. It is by no means a part of our health regimen.

      Seems like a couple of you misunderstood my post to mean that I do not encourage my son to be healthy and that I just let him eat poorly and
      sit around playing games. Truth is, he just wanted to see what the
      machine had to say this morning about weight and BMI. Seems to me like
      our lifestyle changes are beginning to affect him in a conscious way.

      Forgive me if I’ve misunderstood, but some of the comments seem a bit quick to judge.

  7. My wife and I are becoming parents. Years we never thought we’d be in this situation and here we are. Becoming fit (er) and eating a 90% primal diet has helped us stay healthy this year, fight off some potentially normal flus and colds and caused us to understand that food should not come from a package with logos. Now the dilemma is going to be nurturing a child to follow these same footprints. I will struggle, and fail, but I know that I will do my best. Help the child make good decisions in the pantry and during exercise. What I have noticed as I become aware on my closest friends parenting skills is that kids are like sponges. They do what mommy and daddy do 80% of the time and the other 20% they mock what the other kids or media does. We both agree that the child’s physical appearance will be an issue, but we will make what they put into their bodies a very big one. You can discipline for their actions and guide them to make better decisions in life and hope for the best. How the child looks or weighs will not be something to discipline.

    1. Correction: “We both agree that the child’s physical appearance will not be an issue, but we will make what they put into their bodies a very big one.”

  8. If you constantly monitor your kids and harp on them, you’re about to accomplish the opposite of what you desire. Seriously. Take it from this former chubby kid.

    Here’s some things parents should NOT do:

    1. Tack a photo of a model on the fridge as an “ideal” of what to look like and remind you not to eat that snackie in the fridge.

    2. Force kids to go out for sports they don’t enjoy just because it’s a lot of “running around and calorie burning.” If there’s anything more insulting to a chubby kid, it’s being the chubby kid picked last for the team.

    3. Warn your kids in the presence of their friends from school that they are not allowed a second helping but their friends are because they’re “skinny.”

    4. Follow every diet fad imaginable and bring your kids in on it, too. Remember all of Oprah’s fads? Sadly, I do, too.

    5. Tell your kids that they should drop off some pounds so you can stop shopping in the “husky kids” catalog because husky items cost more. (Maybe not valid in 2009, but it sure was in the 80s and 90s.)

    6. Along with the clothing, pick frumpy clothing for your kids because if it’s too tight the kids will pick on them. Make a scene in the dressing room.

    7. Inflict general guilt on your child if they’re ever a few pounds overweight.

    8. Project your own weight struggles onto your kids.

    9. Buy clothing 1-2 sizes smaller for your kids because maybe they’ll just sneak into it if they stop eating the Ho-hos!

    10. Ruin whatever chance your child has of self esteem into adulthood and encourage a form of ED.

    What can you do? Start setting the example, cooking and serving healthy meals at home or on the go, and encouraging your children to participate in activities they enjoy. Be honest about nutrition like Mark’s post suggests. Go outside as a family and do chores. Honestly, just encourage going outside and romping around. This was one part of my childhood I really enjoyed. Stop playing the role of the “projector” and stop playing the guilt trip game with your kids.

    I don’t think I’ll ever shed the severe scars of my weight battles as a child (can you tell from the above?), but I know that when the family turned things around by the time I was in high school, I started losing weight on my own right and feeling better about myself.

    1. Wow, that was really crazy! I’m sorry for what you went through. It sounds like they started to change, I hope!

  9. Thank you for a wonderful article – please continue to cover this incredibly important side of health and fitness.

    We are Americans in Denmark and witness to a culture with fabulous health habits. Over 1/3 of the Danes in our city ride their bikes to work! I cup my hand to my ear around 2:30 every afternoon to hear the nation crunching apples in unison. Favorite lunchbox fillers are dark rye bread with fish spreads and raw veggies. Where kids gather for sporting events or dance exhibitions – fruit is served as a snack. And, may I add, the price of organic foods approaches the price of the other stuff due to widespread demand. No wonder this is the “Happiest Country in the World”!

  10. Great and timely post Mark! We really need this sort of open forum to talk it out and get it sort of rolling around in our heads to figure out what is the best way to convey what we adults know and what the children will ultimately hear and actually do.
    I work with children everyday and I will tell you and everyone that wants to listen that a child will more likely follow what they SEE over what they are told hands down.
    Not that they will not listen it is more a case of not really understanding.
    Best bet is to lead by example and educate on a fun interesting level…their level.
    There is my 2 cents hope it is useful.

  11. I’m with Gary Taubes on this. Overeating is not a moral issue, it’s a physiological issue caused by excess carb consumption. If your kids grow taller, it’s not because they’ve overeaten; they have been prompted to eat more by growth hormone. Similarly, if they grow fat, it’s not “because” they have overeaten; their bodies have driven them to “overeat” due to excess insulin. If you view it in this way, you can remove all the emotional connotations.

    I feed my kids primal food and I truly believe they won’t get overweight, no matter how many huge plates of lamb chops and broccoli they chow down!

    1. This is also what I think. Everyone who eats grains and sugar regularly will develop the metabolic syndrome. Some get overweight, others have high blood pressure or diabetes or gout, but it’s all physiological with a genetic basis. Just feed the kids proper food and things will take care of themselves.

    2. Yep. Totally agreed. Back in the mid-1900s they knew that most of the food you eat, fats and carbs in particular, go straight to your adipose tissue after you eat, and then is re-released as fatty acids between meals as you need the energy. What happens with fat people is our insulin remains elevated and keeps that stuff locked up, so we go around hungry all the time.

      I wish I’d known about all this stuff with respect to children’s nutritional needs when I had mine. I was close to the knowledge with child #2 but not close enough. I want to go back and start her on veggies and meat first, not rice or fruit. She’s five now and always wants “something sweet to eat.” 🙁

      (No, I don’t cave… if she hasn’t had a meal recently she gets that before any treats.)

  12. I was born into a healthy lifestyle. My mother fed us well and she ate well. Of course, as a teenager and young adult, I realized candy, soda and other sugary things tasted great. I never had weight issues until I went to college. I “thought” I was eating well and couldn’t figure out why I was gaining weight. I lost 20lbs after college by exercising more and watching my diet. I have kept that weight off for about 10 years now.

    Last year I was diagnosed with a gluten allergy. So, my diet has been changed for the better.

    I have two children and truly believe if you are eating healthy, more than likely your children will choose to eat healthy. Everything in moderation.

  13. I love your articles… I found your website a couple of months ago…I have made some of your delicious meat dishes..coconut pancakes, etc. My family loves to eat and I love to cook.
    My interest in this article about teaching our children was very pertinent as I have 12 children. Most are grown and on their own, but I do have 3 teenagers at home still. My 18 year old daughter was diagnosed with type one diabaetes almost a year ago… it is a challenge to help her eat healty foods so as not to raise her blood sugars.( your website has given me good ideas) .. We set the example in our home and don’t harp too much… I have seen from my older daughters that have families of their own now, that when you “train up a child in way they should go, he will not depart from it” . Thanks for sharing your knowlege and opinion… very enjoyable and informative…

  14. Add me to the “this drives me nuts” camp.

    I am convinced that childhood obesity begins in infancy and is ENTIRELY the fault of the parent. We need, as a nation of parents, nip in the bud NOT play catch up when the kid is in middle school.

    Several ppl gave excellent responses (Stephanie Vincent and MRD232 especially) but mothers need to start AT BIRTH with good habits, beginning with breastfeeding and introducing veggies rather than punking out with fruits (“but he loves applesauce!” no bloody wonder! It’s almost pure sugar!). These moms who say “She’ll only eat mac and cheese and chicken fingers so that’s all I serve”, well, mommy FAIL. Kids won’t starve themselves! It’s up to US to be certain our children get the proper foods and fruit juice in the baby bottle isn’t it!

    I am Paleo and my kids ( I have 5 children under the age of 8) are basically Primal. I serve healthy, very low carb/sugar/starch meals made by me from scratch out of whole foods (as much as possible) and they must at least sample each food. If they don’t want to eat it, that’s their business; they may leave the table. But NO one gets special meals made for them around here.

    I also make their lunches for school and we do not eat fast food or watch television (at all)

    My kids eat when they are hungry, stop when they are full, and are all happy, well-adjusted, healthy, and slim.

    Sorry this sounded so ranty, but this is a sore subject with me especially when I see some of the flabby, overweight, pale, out of breath classmates of my kids (K, 1st and 2nd grade! How sad!) who bring candybars, chips, and soda for lunch.

    1. I completely agree. I’m tired of people making excuses, it’s time to start taking responsibility for our decisions and actions. Growing up, we had basically no processed food (though we did have grains) and I was definitely not allowed to eat candy! At 25 now, I find my sweet tooth is almost non-existent, and I am one of the few people I know who prefers a steak to dessert. Of course it is difficult to derive causation from this N of 1 “experiment,” but I am sure the foundation of eating real food given to me by my family growing up will stay with me for the rest of my life.
      Ok, tt is easy for me to say all this, not having kids of my own, but Mrs Evil Genius’ point that “Kids won’t starve themselves!” is a simple fact. They will eat what you put in front of them (eventually, maybe after throwing a tantrum) so it is the responsibility of parents everywhere to make responsible choices. No one said it’s easy, but it’s necessary.

    2. I just have to point out that there are kids who will starve themselves. It’s a pretty rare disorder, but it’s out there. We have an 11-year old who literally has panic attacks if you put an unfamiliar or non-preferred food in front of him. He would rather not eat at all, and sometimes goes entire days without eating. He was a good eater until he was about 2 1/2. He got really sick with a roto-virus and after that, the number of foods that he would eat got smaller and smaller. This is a daily struggle for us. It’s just food, and it shouldn’t be this hard, but it is.

      1. It’s not that bad at my house, but I fear it’s getting there. My son is very picky and there’s a lot of anxiety at dinner time. I’ve had to adopt the “eat it or not, whatever” attitude but the consequences to not eating his meal are no food the rest of the night and no electronic entertainment. It doesn’t seem to matter to him, but at least I limit his access to video games this way.

      2. I have a 4.5 year old that has a similar reaction to non-preferred foods, he’s classified as a problem feeder and we’re working with an OT to help him. I worry about this constantly, we model good eating habits, eat fresh, local varied foods, and our other child does too. We attend Crossfit (with the kids in kid care, do other healthy activities as a family) But the 4.5 yr old just freaks out about food, even though he was breastfed and fed varied fresh baby foods. He started dropping foods from his diet at about 2 years and it didn’t occur to us that it would get this bad. We don’t let him have gluten at all, sweets are very limited, and he basically lives on nuts, seeds, coconut and high fat milk. Basically, you can think you’re doing all the right things and it still may not turn out the way to want or think it should. Kids are SO different, and respond to things very differently than even a sibling in the same environment. There’s no ‘one size fits all’ solution to anything in parenting, and just because one family has ‘perfect’ children doesnt mean that same situation will produce the same results in other children. Our children are very close to our hearts, and we’re all trying to do our best for them, let’s all keep that in mind as we’re offering our individual advice.

    3. I hope your all or nothing approach doesn’t come back and bite you in the future! I have 3 children, all fed the same home cooked meals and they all look different. No one’s perfect and I hope you are less ‘ranty’ in person when faced with *gasp* with “pale, flabby, out of breath classmates.” I was one and I didn’t deserve any less respect than anyone else.

  15. I have 2 kids boy 11 and girl 13.
    Getting the balance between eating well, educating them and not making them weird about food or bodies is a challenge.
    Even though I’m very paleo – my kids aren’t. However they eat very little bread and cereal. I’ve not restricted it as such – just feed them other things. But I also refuse to buy bad food like sodas and highly processed cereals. I home bake cookies using better ingredients so they are not entirely derpived.
    They know they feel better with protein, and it keeps their blood sugar stable.
    I teach them about food – protein, carb and fat, which are the best choices. I tell them why some food is best in small amounts and infrequent (treat food), but still allow it in moderation. I explain why they don’t get soda, fruit juice or candy (apart from treats, usually when out).
    The fruit bowl is always full of fresh fruit, nut jars full and cold cuts in the fridge.
    They know they feel good when they eat right. They have had so many meals with protein, good carbs and fats that they notice they feel different when they dont have them I think.
    My son has gone back to eggs for breakfast after taking a couple of weeks eating meusli, as he feels better. Our daughter eats fruit and a protein shake or meat, and knows it works.
    However on a school trip to HongKong she came back much chunkier (lots of noodles and candy), but has trimmed down again slowly. I didn’t say anything or make comments about her size. But she noticed it too and seemed happy to try to eat healthy again.
    We always eat a sitdown dinner together and I think that’s important. We all eat the same paleo type meal. Although the kids usually have a bit more starch as they are very active.
    Lead by example as Alice wrote – very important – and no underhand comments and hints. Speak straight or not at all and dont obssess about kids diets. Provide good meals as many times as possible. Involve kids in meal choices and let them cook.
    My son cooked last night and did a great job.
    Limit TV and computer games. My kids get no TV during the week only weekend after 5pm and before dinner. We have one Tv in the house and the rest of the time they are awake it is off.
    “Kidswatch” restricts computer time.
    They do two sports each all the time. They kept trying different physical activities out until they found what they love.
    Keep introducing vegetables and get their tastebuds acustomed to them.
    Had a client recently whos mum did not make her eat veggies – she wishes she liked them and is trying as a 23 year old to start to like them.
    We have the teaspoon rule – anything you dont like you only have to eat one teaspoon of. Kids will usually like it eventually.

    1. Thanks for your comments, Julianne. Although my 8 year old daughter is generally a rounded eater, there are some things she stubbornly refuses to even try. I am going to incorporate the 1 tsp rule. Thanks for sharing this!

  16. Great post but no matter how many times I say the cod liver oil tastes good my 11 yo daughter says no way dad!(not that I blame her the stuff tastes like [email protected]#t!)

    On the plus side she now loves going to crossfit with me and has been talking about going skiing this winter since late august!

  17. I taught at a middle school in an impoverished neighborhood, and came to believe that a large part of childhood obesity and weight problems stems from economic as well as other factors.

    The difference in price between organic/pasture fed/etc food and cheap, genetically modified crap can be huge. And if you’re a single mother working two jobs with three kids and little time or cash, suddenly buying them a Happy Meal from the local McDonald’s seems like an attractive option.

    Factor in the poor quality of lunch food at schools in general (generally awful stuff), and it’s easy to see why so many kids don’t stand a chance at eating healthy.

  18. As the mom of a 21 month old I can’t agree enough with play more, cook more, do more, and get out more! My boy is hella active, but not hyper. At 21 months he’s pedaling his quad-cycle down the sidewalks about a mile and a half, and then if we aren’t riding in the dark maybe some dirt digging time outside, mucking paddocks, and feeding animals. It isn’t always fun to get out in the rainy Pacific Northwest, but it is so important. When we can’t, I try and include him in helping me do other things around the house, (He isn’t of the artistic nature) especially cooking. He can’t do much, but he can stir, spin salad, whisk eggs, empty cans of beans etc. etc. I hope it instills in him home cooking and gardening. Gardening is a great way to get kids to eat veggies, fruits and berries. Right now the boy eats better than I do. Simple foods, home cooked, and no idea where the cookies are stashed.

  19. We have the opposite problem with our grandsons. It is very difficult to get them to eat. Sometimes it becomes a challenge of wills. Our daughter does get them to eat vitamins and tries to get them to take a childs omega 3 supplement but the problem of getting them to eat enough continues. They are twins that are 11 this year. Any suggestions?

  20. This subject is one of the main topics on my own blog. I chaulk it up to socialization. Most of the kids I know don’t consider any real foods treats. Why? They were taught that. I let my son choose any “treat” he wants at the market – it just so happens that those treats are in the produce section. Today he was so excited about his pomegranate.

    If you don’t eat, enjoy and SHARE real Primal foods, then your kids won’t eat them either. Are kids born believing that HI-C is real fruit? That crackers, chips and soda are the only options for snack foods? No! Parents teach them!

    Sure there are other influencing factors, but studies show that taste preferences are developed very early in life – some say in the womb. Starting your kids on junk early sets them up to crave them for the rest of their lives.

    It’s fun to give kids treats. They get so excited about them. I am here to say that it is possible to get excited about a fresh peach, too! It starts at home.

  21. I raised two boys to eat healthy and be physically active. I think you can sum up the best advice by saying: Walk the talk and bring them along”.

    I don’t like how many modern parent push kids into activities while they themselves run around accommodating it all while neglecting themselves and setting an example of how to let yourself go when you get older. You teach kids that being active is for kids.

    Instead I tried to stay active and as I learned about healthy eating incorporated what I learned. All the while I spent time with my kids as we did active things together. When they became teenagers they deviated into their own paths which included what they wanted to do and their share of occasional junk food.

    But now they are both dedicated to staying fit and living in a healthy lifestyle.

  22. This article was awesome. I am a mother of two grown children and I can tell you from experience that our children become us. I believe they learn emotion from there mothers before birth. IMO, if the mother doesn’t have self esteem and confidence then most likely the child will not either. I believe it is learned. It has taken me years to have self confidence, once I did my children started to learn to like them selves. They learn everything from us, includeing what foods to like and all.

    I am trying to not get mad here cause I have real issues with my Sister in law and the malnutrition of my nephews. She will only eat chicken nuggets and mac n cheese and feels that that’s all her children will like too. They believe that their children need to stay busy with sports but don’t understand why my nephew is so blasted tired after school and doesn;t have nuch energy to play sports. Well duh, no protein no muscle growth and repair! He is probably so sore after hockey class that he doesn’t want to go back. all they eat is pizza, hot dogs, FF’s, apple sauce, yogurt, chk nuggts and mac n cheese, mashed potatoes, oh and lots of ketchup! When does all this border on child neglect? Infuriates me! and I feel helpless about it.

  23. Get article Mark.
    I will say that I have my kids “TRY” new foods. I give them the opportunity and tell them to at least try it and then if you don’t like it fine. Don’t be afraid to try because life is and adventure and trying new foods can be fun.

    My kids eat pretty healthy for the most part. I find it very funny that their friends don’t eat nearly or for that matter close to as good as they do.

    Primarily, meats (lean) lot’s of chicken breast and ground turkey, lean beef and veggies. We have dark greens and a lot of broccoli.

    I make sure that breakfast is substantial. Fresh fruit, mellon, juice and cereal.

    We don’t try to beat health into our kids but give them facts and information regarding choices.

    When and if we go out to eat, it is very encouraging to see them order healthy dishes on their own.

    I think it all boils down to what your article states. Communication and a “Little OLD SCHOOL” tactics comes in handy also. But information is crucial.

    Thanks Mark

      1. I would imagine it’s in the milk that goes on the cereal (if it’s cold cereal, that is).

  24. Fabulous Post. I love the photograph as well! Classic.

    One related topic that I’d love to discuss is specifically the idea that so many adults have “immature taste buds”. You may have hit upon this before but i think it’s a really pertinent topic.
    As infants, we are born with many more taste buds than we have as adults. Apparently, we evolved this way since Grok’s kids walked in the forests foraging food. If it was bitter or sour, it was more likely to be poisonous and they’d spit it out. It was a protective mechanism for survival.
    This is likely to be the reason so many children don’t prefer green vegetables.

    The only way for our taste buds to mature is to consistently eat these bitter tasting foods. Unfortunately, many parents let their children dictate what they will eat and are not consistent about introducing and reintroducing these healthy foods (I’m a mother so I’m not saying it’s easy. In fact, it’s a constant struggle). Consequently, we have raised a society that still has immature taste buds.
    So, while the idea of having farmer’s markets supplying food for school lunches, etc. is all a worthy thought, the reality is, if children have not been brought up with these foods at home, they are not likely to eat them at school. These wonderful fruits and vegetables are most likely going to just get tossed in the trash.
    And with a population whose favorite “vegetable” is a french fry, we have a lot of work to do.

  25. Definitely lead by example, but don’t deprive. Our kids are hugely influenced by others at school and to deprive them you end up like me. My mom allowed no “junk” in the house and when college came, the freshman 15 was an understatement. I did not need to see her on a diet and barely eating each day. I needed what I’m giving my kids: family meals as often as possible. We model healthy eating habits and are active independent of the kids and with the kids. They see how my husband and I make exercise a priority and how much we love it. We focus on the health factor of foods, not anybody’s weight. Everything in moderation has worked for us. As soon as you tell them no to the Halloween candy or the ice cream, or even the occasional Cheetos, it’s going to come back to haunt you. Let them try it all and continue to tell them why you don’t choose to indulge. They will get it and choose the same for themselves. You are their role model and they want to emulate that even though they may not show it to you.

    1. “Deprive” is a strange word to apply to a substance that you don’t need and that actively works to kill you over a span of decades.

      Not that I have any room to talk…

  26. I don’t have kids so I can’t answer from that perspective. My youth, I’m happy to report, didn’t focus a lot on weight. We were very athletic and though I wasn’t spoiled as a kid, if there was any physical activity I wanted to try, I had the equipment immediately. I think it set the foundation of valuing my health and I’m thankful. Once I left for college, the sense of body “competition” amongst other females ultimately bent my brain quite a bit. I’m really glad for the athletic foundation or I’m not sure I would have found my way out of it. I think kids relate to being able to do things better than what the idea of “health” is at a young age. May they be inspired by a great athlete, or better yet, fit, healthy parents.

  27. Interesting article. I remember my parents doing several good things to help foster healthy eating. We often had dinner at home (even if it was plain chicken breasts and frozen veggies). We only had dessert a couple times a month. And we always had to eat at least one bite of everything on our plate – that’s how I learned to love salads!

  28. My son will “try” one bite of something but you can tell he’s already got it in his head he’s not going to like it, and his way of remaining in control is to not eat two bites. 😉

    He’s only five.

    I don’t know how to deal with it other than to make him try one bite and then act like I don’t care when he refuses to eat anything else. I refuse to make dinner time a war, but I sure wish I had one of those kids who would eat anything.

  29. I don’t have any kids myself, but below are some things my own parents did that I feel helped me tremendously with regards to my own attitude towards healthy eating and exercise:

    I grew up in a small village, so I was “in tune” with nature – we grew our own vegetables, and our family owns cherry& apple trees. (during cherry season, we spent all day up in the trees, picking fruit for 2-3 weeks).
    So right from the start, I just knew that there are no strawberries in february, so I never even considered buying them off-season.
    Also, I’m aware of all the hard work that goes into picking a pound of cherries, so nowadays I’m not put off by the price of organic produce because I know that the price is more than reasonable.

    My favourite pasttime as a kid was climbing trees, playing in the forrest and by the river – pretty much trying to get as dirty as possible by the end of the day.

    We’ve been to McDonalds exactly once – because we had a beach holiday coming up and the toy in the Happy Meal was a lil’ bucket and a shovel to play in the sand.

    Oftentimes, my dad used to take me on a bikeride, and as a reward, he bought me a comic book (not a candybar).
    He also refused to drive me anywhere, I was told to walk or go by bike. the only time he offered to drive me to a friend’s house was when I had dressed up as Lara Croft for a party – somehow, he didn’t want his daughter to walk through the neighbourhood wearing hotpants and fake double-D’s :-p

  30. Hi Mark:

    As a mother of two trying to raise a paleo family, my biggest struggle, is trying to pack a paleo lunch the kids will actually eat. I would love to see a 5 day (or more) plan of lunch and snack ideas. Keeping in mind, that most schools in Canada are peanut/nut free environments.

  31. I think the diet of children should be able to supply the body all the nutrients it needs.Fries, snacks, drinks and confectionery are by far the favorite foods of children but does not reflect an adequate diet.

  32. Wow. This post spoke to me, and I saw myself, both the good and the bad, exposed. Thank you for saying so eloquently, what I have often felt.

    We have a very mixed household…a naturally thin son (15), a morbidly obese dad, a daughter that is alternately at peace and at odds with her increasing weight (18), and myself, who has had weight/esteem issues since childood that I still have to work at shaking (lost 30 lbs in my 30’s, and now have lost about 7 more, at 41, after 3 months of being primal).

    Thank you again for your commitment to encouraging health – mental and physical. It is SOOO worth striving for.

  33. My son, decided he didn’t want any bread because his dad and I decided we didn’t want any. Kids just naturally want to do what there parents do, especially if you include them in the decision making process. For lunch I pack romaine lettuce with avocado spread, left over meat, and wrap it up like a burrito. I add snap peas and carrots and a piece of fruit. I asked him yesterday if he misses the bread, he said absolutely not because it’s so good.

  34. I found a few books at the library about sneaking healthy foods into other foods a child is more likely to want to eat. I think it may be possible to translate that line of thinking into a more paleo setting. The thing is, while kids are “learning” to like healthy food, their bodies are still screaming for it. You don’t stop having nutritional needs just because you don’t like what’s healthy. So I really appreciate the “sneaky chef” trend.

  35. Great post and comments! My kids get nutrition “lessons” all the time as I am an exercise physiologit and fitness nutritionist. Here is our society for you: My daughter gets teased about her snack at school which is usually a piece of fruit and either string cheese or sea salted amonds. Everyone else brings chips and such. And this is only the 2nd grade!!!!!

  36. I applaud those who sport huevos big enough to tell mommy it’s her fault & comments akin to that. After all, we live in a country free of inconsistency, where everyone knows the one, true right way to live. Hell, our government produces guidelines specifying omission of grains from the diet, and our healthcare system and schools carry out that mandate. No where does there exist any conflicting evidence, and no one is marketing anything towards our kids that might be harmful to them. It sickens me that people consider the feelings of the overweight and their spawn as though they are our equals. With the caucasian, white-bearded God who sits on a chair in the clouds surrounded by servants that require wings to fly as my witness and cruel judge, I believe it is time we purify this country, and history has shown us that this type of thinking has never brought any shame to mankiNd…it’s crAZy to thInk otherwiSe.

    …and now I my sarcastic venting has ended.

    1. Kids have to WANT to eat healthfully or the battle is lost the minute they’re out the door. It can’t and shouldn’t be legislated or dictated (ref Denmark).
      Parents who eat (and drink) well and for pleasure and enjoy exercise are showing their kids the way. Kids don’t listen much after parents become idiots (14 or so, age of the child – not parent), but they’re watching like hawks.
      The very best we can do for our kids is:
      1) discuss the menu and preparation
      2) eat well, with wine/beer as appropriate
      3) exercise consistently
      4) enjoy life and love the kids well

  37. Here are my challenges……

    My 8 and 11 year old are bored ****less with smoothies, veggie trays, hummus dips, raw nuts and any other healthy creation I can come up with. They are literally starting to mutiny! I do allow them the occasional potato chip or sweet when we are out and about. My 11 year old is overweight, but my 8 year old is at a perfect weight. I attribute this to the fact that my 8-year-old never stops moving. My other source of concern is that in order for my kids to be active I have to be involved. This is getting very, very old. I miss the days where kids just ran outside to play. I just don’t feel like I can do that because of safety concerns. Apparently, other parents feel the same because when I do let the kids venture forth there are no other kids to play with. I am so tired of feeling like my kids have to be in some structured activity or sport in order to be active. I think parents are really “missing the boat” by running their kids around from activity to activity.