Crunch-Time Rules for Parenting and Eating

As a food writer, I follow trends in healthful eating; as a parent, I know when I shouldn't indulge my children's whims. Still, when I read the results of a new poll on eating and exercising, I saw myself in nearly every rule that was guaranteed to backfire.
03/07/2013 10:46 am ET Updated May 13, 2013
three kids eating burgers
three kids eating burgers

As a food writer, I follow trends in healthful eating; as a parent, I know when I shouldn't indulge my children's whims. Still, when I read the results of the new poll on eating and exercising during "Crunch Time -- 3PM to Bed" by NPR, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the Harvard School of Public Health, I saw myself in nearly every rule that was guaranteed to backfire.

I say "clean your plate" on a regular basis. "No dessert until..." begins many of my sentences. Of course, "sodas and chips (are) only for special occasions." Their research encourages creative negotiation.

Even though I have reviewed the numbers, I admit that there is a lot that I will continue to do wrong, but there is more that I can try to do right. Here are some points from that research and how I translate them into my own, real-world parenting.

New study warns: Only a "modest fraction of children (are) involved in food decisions and preparation."
Real-world translation: Make my children prep cooks. This is a messy suggestion that will lead to water-slicked floors, frustrated kids and vegetable peels tucked into that no-man's-land behind the garbage can. Yes, it is hard. I know. I've been stepping on errant kiwi for years. However, this is a tool that promotes healthy eating and may lower obesity rates, so it is my cue to do it on a daily basis.

New study warns: There is a "crunch time window" during which 60% of children are given foods and drinks that can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Real-world translation: Those after-school snacks need to be healthier and may set more of a tone than I realize. This is especially clear later in the day, when I open the lunchboxes and see that only three bites were taken from my daughter's sandwich and her apple was untouched.

New study warns: Parents don't seem to believe that the way a child ate on a certain day will lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Real-world translation: Evidently, we consider the amounts of unhealthy foods and drinks too small to make a real difference. I found this one particularly difficult; my children eat dessert regularly. That won't change. However, I can be more honest about sneaking in those sweets. When my kids want to squirt chocolate syrup in their milk, the snack changes... and just a little syrup won't do. Honestly, it's dessert.

New study warns: Rules about finishing everything on a child's plate encourages over-eating.
Real-world translation: More important than finishing a portion is the idea that your child has tasted everything. I need to stop mentally measuring intake. However, I will continue to announce that the meal stops here. No substitutions.

New study warns: Limiting certain foods or drinks at the table may (counter-intuitively) encourage children's preferences for sweeter foods or larger portions.
Real-world translation: Ugh. I have one child who would live on milk along. Another on raw fruits and vegetables. My third would subsist on eggs. However, this has shifted me towards putting food into serving bowls, rather than doling portions onto individual plates. They need to have a little of everything, but that's it. I need to trust in what I have put on the table, and let them choose their own "seconds."

New study warns: The number of families eating together has been steady for 20 years, but we are increasingly distracted by television, iPhones, laptops or cell phones during dinner.
Real-world translation: Take a seat and turn it off. We are among the 50% of families who cannot eat together because one parent is still at work. This has plummeted me, at times, to sitting the kids at the table while I run food and drinks back and forth. While it does seem reasonable for me to wait to dine later with my husband, I cannot deny that it negatively impacts my children. "If mommy doesn't have to eat, why should I?" Instead, I'm making dinner my teatime. And I'm shutting down the iPhone. When was the last time I received a really important text?

New study warns: The idea that family celebrations are a time to take a break from being healthy and include "chips, fried foods, fast foods or sweets" can lead to unhealthy weight gain.
Real-world translation: I love Doritos. It doesn't feel like a celebration without Doritos. Can I skip this one? Maybe. But at the same time, there are better food traditions -- more healthful and historically important ones in my family -- that have been forgotten for the sake of convenience. When was the last time we tried to replicate my grandfather's bracing, lemony vinaigrette? Remember those slightly sweet and deep gold S-shaped anise cookies that Nonna used to make? My brother and I might scratch our heads to recall these tastes while ripping open a bag of Doritos. Maybe this study is a reminder that those childhood recipes are the real stuff of family celebrations -- especially when we are lucky enough to have one during crunch time.

Find more on food, wine, and parenting on Christina's blog, Sexy Mother Foodie