Managing treats – or fun foods, as I like to call them – is something that many parents find tricky in general, but summertime brings its own set of challenges. These include greater exposure to treats in day camp, late afternoons spent outside with friends, family trips, and more unstructured time overall. Everyone wants her child to have fun and nobody wants to be the food police, especially over summer vacation. But sometimes a parent does have to step in and provide some structure. What can we do so that summertime snacking doesn’t become too much of a good thing?
I don’t think there is one universal strategy that will work for every family or every child, but an awareness of what tends to be beneficial and what tends to backfire can help you set the stage for a healthier summer. A while back, I chatted about this with my colleague Bonnie Giller, a registered dietitian and intuitive eating coach in West Hempstead, NY. Bonnie has worked in medical nutrition therapy and counseling for over 30 years and she is also an experienced mother and grandmother. She is known for providing caring support and motivation as her clients reacquaint themselves with their inner wisdom. You’ll see Bonnie's tips included throughout the article.
1. Avoid Using Food as a Reward or Entertainment
Rewarding good behavior with treats is a common practice in our society, and unfortunately this can have negative effects on a child’s relationship with food as well as his behavior. A child can learn to associate “being good” with deserving a treat and may be more likely to seek treats in the absence of hunger. He may also be less motivated to do the desired behavior when a treat is not provided as a reward. You can’t control much of what happens at school or camp, but you can control what you do at home. Many forms of positive behavior don’t require a reward at all – a child may actually feel more internal motivation when a reward isn’t offered. He is quite likely to feel good about behaving well without any sort of intervention from you! When a reward is helpful, you can make sure to use alternative forms of positive reinforcement, such as giving a compliment, a hug, or a small prize. Similarly, using food as a form of entertainment is not a crime, but by distributing it whenever a child is at loose ends, you demonstrate that eating is a good way to cure boredom. It takes more effort to develop a list of projects and activities for unstructured time, but it is well worthwhile. By working to find other forms of reward and entertainment, you will show your child that fun foods are a regular and enjoyable part of life but that they are not dependent on any particular behavior and are not appropriate as an automatic antidote to boredom.
2. Have a Smart Schedule
Here’s another thing you can do to help your child take good care of his body when the outside environment may not be especially conducive to healthy eating. If a child is not eating regular, well-balanced meals throughout the day, he is more likely to snack not just because the snacks look yummy but because he is HUNGRY! If he wants to go out and play as soon as day camp is over, he may snack throughout the late afternoon and come home without an appetite for dinner. Bonnie stresses that by ensuring that your child eats meals at regular times and providing balanced options, you can help him pace himself and fill up during mealtimes so that he is able to choose his snacks more wisely instead of reaching for them simply because he is hungry and they are around. This might mean serving dinner early, before he goes out to play, or making a point to sit down and have a family lunch over vacation instead of dishing out snacks throughout the day. As children get older, they naturally have more autonomy over their food choices, but you can still do your part by making nutritious options available at appropriate times. The importance you place on routine and balanced eating can go a long way towards instilling these values in your children. You can also demonstrate your trust in them by allowing them to help with food prep and having the expectation that they will show up to meals. On long summer afternoons, when kids can easily lose track of time when playing outside, Bonnie advises giving older children the responsibility of making sure their younger siblings come home on time for meals.
3. When Necessary, Help Reintroduce Internal Cues
Part of this preparing your child to eat well in situations in which a lot of food is around may include helping him become aware of what his belly feels like when it is hungry and when it is full. Children are born with this awareness, but over time, many factors can cause this skill to get a little rusty. As they grow older, children may choose to eat (or stop eating) for a variety of reasons other than physical hunger. If your child has learned to eat in order to please the adults around him, to self-soothe or distract, or to overeat when he sees fun foods because he’s been deprived of them, he may be out of touch with his physical sensations of hunger and fullness and may need some to relearn how to interpret what he is feeling. As mentioned above, scheduling meals and snacks several hours apart can help sharpen hunger and fullness cues. Occasionally, it may be helpful to ask a child some leading questions. For a child who has learned to eat in the absence of hunger, learning to do a “belly check” may be a good idea. In these cases, Bonnie suggests asking the child, “Is your belly hungry for a meal or for a snack?” This can help him learn to check in and start to identify his level of hunger. He can do a belly check during a meal to determine whether he still needs more. If a child has been put on a diet or has a troubled relationship with food, this strategy can backfire and should only be used under the guidance of a professional. When in doubt, leave it out! For a child who has not lost touch with his hunger and fullness cues, scheduling meals appropriately is generally sufficient and he likely doesn’t need to consciously check in with his belly.
4. Harness Habituation
When I asked Bonnie how she feels about the increased exposure to fun foods during the summer, she was firm on this point: “You do a lot more harm by making a bit deal out of it.” She discussed the concept of habituation, which means that the more exposure you have to something, the less exciting it becomes. You are not doing your child a favor by keeping your house completely free of treats. If a child knows that fun food will be available with some degree of regularity, he is less likely to want it desperately every time its around. This has been demonstrated over and over again in the research, and if you look out for it, you’ll be sure to see this phenomenon in the kids in your life! It is absolutely true that children naturally prefer sweet foods, but these foods do lose some of their sparkle when they’re offered with regularity. True story: On the last day of Pesach, one little girl I know looked down at her dessert plate and sighed, “I’m so tired of eating cake.”
When a child is raised in an environment in which fun foods are provided predictably, he will be able to tune into his body more effectively and decide how much he really feels like eating a particular fun food. Pediatric dietitian Maryann Jacobsen recommends developing a Flexible Goodies Policy, which means coming up with a set of guidelines that determines your family’s approach to fun foods. It may look different for each family, but the idea is that there is predictability to it (children have a general idea of how often fun foods are provided) and that these foods are present often enough so that they never become too much of a big deal.
5. Differentiate Between Food Issues and Parenting Issues
This is one of the most useful tools to have handy when you are trying to assess how to navigate an eating issue. Ask yourself, is this a food thing? Or is it a parenting thing? If it’s a parenting thing, how would you deal with it? For example, let’s say your child wants to buy ice cream on a daily basis from the truck that drives through the neighborhood. If he wanted to buy a toy on a daily basis, how would you react? Healthy limits are necessary in most areas of life. It can really help you stick to your values and make confident decisions once you realize that many food decisions aren’t really about food at all. If a child feels deprived of fun foods in general, he will most likely overeat them when he gets the opportunity, but that doesn’t mean saying “yes” to every request. Kids do need limits and they need to learn how to handle them. When you view this through the lens of parenting in general, it becomes easier to determine how you will approach fun foods. Dietitian Jill Castle refers to this feeding style as “love with limits”; you are considerate of the child’s perspective, but ultimately you are the one with the final say. By utilizing a relaxed yet reasonable approach to fun foods at home, you can help set your child up to make balanced choices when he’s out in the big wide world.
Food is meant to be enjoyable, and fun foods can definitely add excitement to a child’s day. But when food is overused, or when rigidity and guilt are associated with eating, you’ve interrupted the natural process of eating, enjoying, and moving on. Hopefully, the strategies above will help you and your child enjoy a healthy, relaxing, and fun-filled summer!