Limiting your tween to healthful choices is difficult. Busy family schedules, TV commercials, cafeteria lunches, and fast-food restaurants conspire to seduce youngsters into consuming too much in the way of fat and carbohydrates, and too little in the way of protein and fiber.Eating Away from Home
You can control your child's access to money so she can't buy French fries at the school cafeteria and snacks from the vending machines, but how can you keep her from buying the less healthful alternatives with her own allowance? You can provide a healthful brown bag lunch and tell her not to trade food with other children, but how can you keep her from swapping her goodies for a friend's chips, cake, and Kool-Aid? The cafeteria isn't the only problem, of course. Tweens encounter foods and beverages laced with chemicals, sugar, and fat in the bowls of lollipops that are free for the taking at the local bank, in the sodas and chips and ice cream in friends' homes, and at the endless school parties.
Short of lobbying to get your school's cafeteria to serve healthier foods and oust the vending machines, the only thing you can do is to forbid your tween to trade her lunches or to spend her money on food items that aren't good for her. Give her all your best reasons for your firm stance on the matter and hope for the best.
Tell your child that too many parents don't take good care of their kids these days, so they carry poor lunches to school or are forced to eat cafeteria food. They aren't taught that what they put in their mouths makes a difference in their health, grades, and feelings of well-being. Build family pride in your nutritional standards by referring to yourselves in the third person and letting her know that your family's way is the better way: “Unlike some people, we Finleys don't eat junk food.” “Other families might eat greasy, starchy, sugary, salty stuff, but not the Guginos. We know better.”
If it seems unreasonable to expect a child not to participate with his classmates by eating what they eat, remember that diabetic youngsters and those who suffer from serious food allergies learn to say “no” without having their childhoods destroyed. If your tween is not afflicted with these problems, it may seem heartless to say she can't do what her friends are doing. On the other hand, combine all of the classroom parties, ice cream days, cafeteria breakfasts and lunches, visits to fast-food restaurants during field trips, snacks at after-school programs, and contests where the class reward is a pizza party or candy bars, and you'll realize that students in some schools are regularly filling up on low-quality, high-fat foods.
It really is important to send very clear, consistent messages about what you expect your child to do outside of the home: Stay away from candy bars, cookies, chips, cake, ice cream, pop, and all the other foods whose most important contribution is to finance your dentist's vacation. Will she follow your instructions when every other child is slurping pop and munching candy bars to her heart's content? Maybe not. Will your child sneak in trips to the candy counter at the movies and lie about what she consumed so as not to upset you? Depending on her personality, the answer could be “never,” “sometimes,” “usually,” or “always.” Will she know how to eat healthfully if, at age fifteen or fifty, she finally figures out that she needs to clean up her diet? Yes!Finding the Middle Ground
Some parents fear that taking a firm stance and insisting their tweens follow a healthful diet when they are at school and in the community will cause them to sneak around and lie. Some children will in fact disregard their parent's wishes, and then take pains to keep their dietary lapses secret. Is it better for your child to sneak around, cover up, or even lie, because he knows that what he's doing is wrong? Or is it better to do the best you can to monitor food at home and let him do as he will when he's away from home without expressing disapproval? The danger of the latter is that it can send the message that you don't really care enough to protest. Perhaps a middle ground would be to clearly communicate your expectations and let your child know that you understand he will have lapses.
Acknowledge that the pressure of peers or enticement of sugar will at times win out over good sense. Be appreciative of your youngster's honesty rather than critical when he reports that he ate something that is supposed to be off his menu. Talk about what he was feeling and how else he might have responded to hunger, peer pressure, or problematic emotions; then discuss things he can do to balance his diet for the day. For instance, perhaps he can forgo dessert after dinner on a day when he eats cake and cookies at the class party. If you feel inclined to indulge your child at a restaurant, let him choose to have soda or a dessert, not both.Problems, Problems
If you get hints that your child is regularly disobeying your directives to refrain from consuming junk food when he's away from the house, trying harder to control what he puts in his mouth probably won't help. It may engender defiance and rebellion. The only realistic solution is to assume he's satisfying his needs for fats and sugars elsewhere and alter the foods you serve at home accordingly. Do
If your tween fills up on empty or less-than-desirable calories, she won't have room for healthier foods. Don't feel you are being mean by setting limits, even though most other parents don't. Your child may not like your decisions, but she will understand your intent and will be able to make good decisions when she's grown.
You can't always control what your tween does when he is home alone or out from under your watchful gaze, and you can't force your child to eat foods that he is determined to avoid. What you can do is to control
My child gets hungry before our dinner hour, which can't be moved up. What are good snacks?
Serve part of the salad, soup, or side dish you have prepared for the regular meal.
Watch TV with your child and point out how commercials trick people into buying and consuming foods that aren't healthful by including toys in cereal boxes, pairing pictures of snacks with beloved cartoon characters, offering free giveaway items kids want at fast-food restaurants. Note that if Ronald McDonald were a really good clown, he would broil or bake the burgers, chicken nuggets, and potatoes instead of serving them fried. Point out that commercials advising parents that “chewy stops the chatter” are actually suggesting they stuff children's mouths with candy bars to keep them quiet!Special Feasts
Tweens cannot live by bread alone. Humans wind treats into their rituals and feature rich foods in their celebrations. We could survive Easter without jellybeans, Passover without matzo, Valentine's Day without chocolate, and birthdays without cake, but special occasions would be a lot less fun without lavish indulgences. Limiting your child's diet on a daily basis doesn't mean you should do it on the holidays. It does mean that the special times will be all the more special.