What to do when your kid won’t touch the greens?

Popular parenting books and websites usually get it wrong when it comes to food. Recent research done by Pauline Jansen, associate professor at Erasmus University and research group leader at Erasmus MC, shows as much. ‘The sense of guilt that the parents are talked into is often unnecessary.’

TEXT: Yasmina Aboutaleb

Her own kids used to be difficult eaters for a while, Pauline Jansen explains. She’s sitting at her desk. There’s two little vases with paperfolded flowers and a clay-made purple bunny. The one day, she says, the two kids (6 and 8 years old) liked green beans just fine – and the next they wouldn’t touch anything green. Jansen’s children aren’t an exception. About fifty percent of all children goes through such a phase. It doesn’t go on for long, usually – most kids grow out of it. On the other hand, these days there's also a whole generation of children who over-eat. According to the World Health Organisation there’s even a world-wide obesity epidemic. A lot of parents struggle with the eating patterns of their children. They’re often worried and feel guilty. But that’s not necessary, according to Jansen.

Are parents not the deciding factor in the eating behaviour of their children?
‘Parents have an important role to play. During the first four years they’re the primary caretakers of the child. They decide what ends up on the plate. The parents – but also older brothers and sisters – are the role models for how to eat. If kids see them eat vegetables and meat and fish, they’ll model themselves after that. You eat what you see others eats. But it’s also important to tell children why they have to eat something: milk is good for your bones, vegetables are good for your muscles. Children like knowing that.’

But kids also have a mind of their own – sometimes they just keep on saying no. Does pushing help?
‘There’s parenting books that say that you shouldn’t, that you should adjust to the child. But if you go about it like that, the child will never develop new habits. It’s better to get the child to taste something. A few bites are better than nothing. But forcing is also not the right way to go about it. Making a child finish their plate doesn’t work – it’s better to give them an extra cheese or meat sandwich after dinner, for compensation.’

‘Kids need to learn to regulate their own sense of satiety.’

Your research is based on the so-called Generation R. What’s that?
‘This is a research group that’s been active since 2002. Pregnant women from the Rotterdam neighbourhood Ommnoord were, at the time, asked to participate in this research. We’ve been monitoring the children who were born at the time, and they’re all 13, 14, 15 years old now. About 6,000 families have participated. Because we’re been keeping track of them for so long now, we can now look into whether the children who are overweight have, perhaps, been raised in a certain way.’

How come there’s more and more children who are obese?
‘Children don’t move enough, they watch TV all day long. Some watch two to three hours of TV a day. When they do, they just sit still the whole time – that’s far too long. By playing alone you burn more calories than when you watch TV. But the big issue is that we all eat too much, and we eat unhealthy foods. This starts at a young age. This is down to the fact that there’s always food everywhere. A lot of people don’t listen to their own sense of hunger or satiety.’

How do parents deal with their own children’s obesity?
‘Parents at times do things that can lead to over-eating, or trigger emotional eating – where children eat in reaction to emotions such as sadness and exhaustion. Some kids, when they cry, are comforted with cookies. But my research shows that it’s more nuanced than that. Some parents tend to give their children less to eat when it seems like they’re gaining weight. They’ll plate up less food, or give fewer candy. That’s a good reaction: it teaches the child to regulate their own sense of satiety, and to not only eat because the food is there. That sense of guilt that some parents are talked into is often unnecessary. It doesn’t give parents enough credit, I believe.’

There are some that say it’s best to put a total ban on candy and sweets.
‘True, but I wouldn’t recommend it. By giving your kids candy every now and then, they’ll learn to regulate their eating patterns. If you forbid candy altogether, you raise the chances that they’ll overdo it once they get the chance to eat candy outside of
the home.’

  • NAME: Pauline Jansen
    STUDIED: PhD Generation R at Erasmus MC; Psychology (MSc.) at Leiden University; Epidimology (MSc.) at the Institute for Health Sciences.
    TITLES: Research-group leader Generation R at Erasmus MC and associate professor in psychology at Erasmus University.