Feeding struggles, moderation, and eggs

Featured article in the Winter 2016 Nutrition Close-Up; written by Richard Kahn, PhD, RD

Feeding struggles between children and parents are common. There are two common causes. One is labeling foods as either “good” or “bad” and then striving to give a child the good food in recommended portions. Eggs have been the victim of the “good/bad” struggle over the past 50 years. For example, many people still think that eggs fall into the “bad” category. Health care professionals, like me, are still telling people that one egg a day is safe. Another cause is lack of detailed knowledge about individual foods. Eggs, some parents need to know, provide important micronutrients such as lutein, a carotenoid antioxidant usually linked to kale, a vegetable. Alerting worried parents to this simple fact may decrease the urge to push vegetables on their vegetable-resistant child. Many a child may dislike vegetables. Those same children may like foods that have eggs as an ingredient. Such foods include whole grain muffins, French toast, and pancakes. Antioxidants and other nutrients survive cooking.

Pressuring children to eat is another cause of struggles. Pressuring parents sometimes need a savvy clinician familiar with decades of research into the prevention and resolution of feeding issues. All that effort can be summed up in one simple rhyme: The parents provide and the children decide.

Parents are advised to offer the most nutritious foods possible, and then take it easy on their children, and themselves. Research into what is called responsive feeding supports a waiting game when it comes to family foods that children do not like. In the meantime, one basic strategy is to quietly model the behavior yourself. That is, parents should eat the foods we want our kids to eat…and be patient in the process.

Teaching moderation and patience underlying responsive feeding can be hard for some parents. Some parents like learning about responsive feeding from the point of view research on attachment theory or child development, the concepts which underlie responsive feeding. Most of us, though, like more entertaining ways of learning. Fun, parent-friendly educational tools exist that suit all levels of literacy. To teach patience, I want to offer this reminder of a fairytale and to present an iconic image.

The fairytale, The Goose that Laid the Golden Egg links the yellow, carotene-rich yolk to the precious metal. The story tells of a magic goose that lays one precious egg of gold a day, which happens to echo USDA guidelines of the past five years. In the tale, the greedy protagonists kill the goose to get more than one egg a day. In other words, the characters are trying to force the process.  Parents who express worry about the negative health effects of eggs might benefit from reading to their child a short, illustrated version of the tale. Using books and illustrations to help people manage emotional issues is called bibliotherapy.

Iconic statues of Ghana’s traditional Ashanti kings show the rulers holding one egg in an open hand on an upright arm. The egg represents his domain. If the ruler is too strict and holds his symbolic egg too firmly, he will crack his domain. A lackadaisical sovereign that grips the egg too loosely is likely to have the egg fall and break. Good kings and good parents find a balance between the firm and the relaxed. Often, the king’s head is in the shape of the egg, representing the relationship between actions and thoughts. I’ve found that the Ashanti image gets the point across and invites parents to talk especially in multicultural settings.

Conversations about too strict and too loose parenting around food raises common parenting concerns that lie behind parents’ desires to teach children healthy eating habits. Many parents wonder about being too hard or too soft about “bad and “good” foods. Setting opposites aside creates space to talk about the family’s particular nutritional needs. Feeding challenges are better met when parents and professionals learn to balance the nutrition and psychological facts that support long-term, balanced nutrition at the table.

When professionals listen first and offer knowledge after the client has a problem or question, we, ourselves, model the balance we promote. The client can begin to grasp the meaning of “just right.” And that helps ensure everyone lives happily ever after.

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Richard Kahn, PhD, RD, is a dietitian specializing in transdisciplinary treatment of feeding, growth and nutrition problems. His doctorate is in Social Welfare and his dissertation topic explored the way allied health professionals, nurses and physicians learned to blend their physical training in infant mental health at the Institute for Infants, Children and Families at Jewish Board Family and Children’s Services in New York City.