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Preachy little foodies (and how not to have one)

Sure it’s great to teach kids where food comes from and why healthy eating matters. But how do we make sure they don’t morph into pint-sized proselytizers who lecture other kids and make them feel bad because mom didn’t pack an organic apple?

I thought about this last week after a comment on my post about teaching kids about industrial meat. Audrey, who works in gardening programs with low-income children, mentioned how she’s careful not to disparage parents who make unwise choices for the kids at home. She also called for budding little foodies to keep it in check on the playground.

So I asked myself: What have my husband and I done to make sure we’re not raising an annoying kid?

Sigh of relief: I thought of a couple things.

First, when our daughter started preschool, we wanted to pack her snacks every day rather than let her eat what the school provided. That’s partly because we’re vegetarian and non-veg stuff can show up in sneaky ways, but it’s also because most conventional snacks contain ingredients we avoid (like trans fats, HFCS, artificial colors and flavors).

We wondered if we’d be causing trouble by having Tess be “different” from her peers, and I didn’t want the teachers to think I was judging them. But in the end we decided it was good for Tess to learn that it’s OK to make different food choices. Soon enough she’d be feeling peer pressure. Better to start her on the path to independence now.

But we kept it casual. We provided her snack without comment on anyone else’s snack, and she got to eat the blue cupcakes and other birthday/holiday treats right along with the rest of the class. Her teachers obviously knew where I stood on food (hello, we were providing our own snacks), but I didn’t make it an issue. (I did, however, notice a steady improvement in school-provided snacks and party treats. Just saying.)

Tess does sometimes ask why other people eat things that are  unhealthy, and I explain that not everyone understands yet how bad some things are, but that they (and we) are learning. So far that seems to satisfy her. And, for now anyway, the idea that different people eat different things seems to be a deterrent to evangelizing.

The other thing is that we’ve tried to instill this idea that we don’t say negative things about food that we’re eating or that anyone else is eating. This started as a way to keep the door open on a food Tess might try but not (initially) like. But it’s evolved into a way to show respect for all food choices, whether we agree with them or not. If she doesn’t like something she’s eating, it’s OK to tell us that, but we don’t want to hear, for instance, how gross something is.

If you’ve met a 6-year-old, you know that’s gotten harder as she’s gotten older, since kids live for the opportunity to call something gross. And then there’s that little matter of no longer being able to control her every influence every minute of every day. But we have noticed a difference in how Tess responds to food she doesn’t like (on her plate or someone else’s) vs. how other kids respond to food they don’t like. So there’s that.

Now if only we could get certain people (like, maybe, family members) to stop commenting on the way we eat.

Have you thought about this, too? How do you raise conscious eaters who aren’t preachy about it?

With this post, I’m participating in Real Food Wednesdays and Fight Back Fridays, where bloggers come together to post links on topics related to eating and learning about real food.

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{ 26 comments… add one }

  • Michael April 7, 2010, 11:49 pm

    I enjoyed reading this piece Christina. We choose to emphasize the positives of what we serve our kids rather than “poo-poo” what is being omitted and I think the balance works with them. They understand the importance of why we eat the way we do, but don’t alienate others based on their food choices. Heck, we have even seen a few of our kid’s friends’ parents begin choosing healthier alternatives because they see our choices and become educated on alternative possibilities! Thanks for your blog!

  • Katie April 8, 2010, 10:45 am

    Thanks for this blog! Your point about teaching kids to be positive (or at least not negative) about foods they don’t like is something we work on a lot with our kids because we serve grown-up food, not kid food, with the expectation that they need to learn to eat like adults, not the other way around, and this means they are not always huge fans of what’s on the dinner plate. Our rule on talking about food: Our kids can say “not my favorite” but otherwise we talk about the foods we DO like, not the foods we DON’T, and do not disparage what someone else is eating. This has led to some funny results, as when we talked with our 3-year-old in advance of a birthday party about how to be polite if she got a gift she didn’t like or already had, and she said, “I would just say, ‘Not my favorite!'”

    I hope you will write more about in-law/family issues. The issue of preachiness and criticizing food choices cuts both ways and is one that I struggle with – both their commentary on our food choices, and my increasing discomfort with theirs.

    • Christina April 8, 2010, 11:07 am

      I know a lot of people struggle with family perceptions of and responses to food choices. In fact I created an entire blog category (“Tricky”) in anticipation of writing more about this subject. Its subtitle: “Etiquette, eating out and other forays to the dark side.”

      (Love your birthday party story.)

  • Kelly the Kitchen Kop April 8, 2010, 4:30 pm

    I love love looooove this post. (And Stumbled it!) I want to be so careful about this with my kids, too. On the one hand, I want to tell them WHY we’re not eating the junk so they learn, and this risks them blurting it out at a bad moment. On the other hand, we USED to eat LOTS of the junk before we knew better, too (and still aren’t perfect), so who are we to judge. It’s a tricky line to walk sometimes.
    I wrote a post called, “I’m really not a food snob”, because I don’t want friends or family to think I’m judging whatever they serve when we’re together. We do the best we can here, but don’t worry AS much when we’re visiting others. :)
    Kelly (p.s. Thanks for adding this to Real Food Wednesday!)

    • Christina April 8, 2010, 11:48 pm

      Thanks for offering Real Food Wednesday! (And for the Stumble — so nice of you.)

  • Anna @ Sacred Appetite April 9, 2010, 6:09 pm

    Interesting question and post! I have been thinking about what I had done or not done to make my kids not preachy about food, which they aren’t (age 17 and 19). My guess is that they observed that when other people were around, I never preached at them. If they asked a question, I’d answer it, or if discussion led that way, but I never tried to point out what people were doing wrong. It was the same when other kids came around and wouldn’t eat our food, for example. I didn’t do anything about it, never pushed anybody to eat anything, but I would talk to the kids about it (or other bad behavior that I wanted to be sure my kids knew how I felt about). So they had the example that we don’t try to change other people unless they want to talk about it, but that we could discuss it among ourselves afterwards. We often have chuckled about the behavior of “picky eaters” that we’ve been around, but not full out to their faces. My daughter has also told me stories about how her friends eat, the lunches their moms pack, etc. that curl my hair. But we know there’s no use preaching at people. Some don’t know and others don’t care.

  • Crystal April 9, 2010, 10:58 pm

    I was just talking to my kids about this tonight! I said we do not tell other what to eat. We just hope that they see what we have in our lunch boxes and think, “that looks cool, maybe I should tell my mom about it!” This is a constant discussion topic in our house, b/c my kids see what others eat and ask why do we eat homemade foods? I also say, everyone eats differently, and this is how we eat in our family.

    • Christina April 10, 2010, 3:54 pm

      I love hearing that others have these sorts of conversations, too. Gives me hope that civility will rule.

  • Angie April 21, 2010, 8:25 pm

    I have determined that my family will question the way we eat until their dying day so……..in one ear and out the other! My kids know the choices and non-choices and they follow them. But I do have to smile when Connor askes my dad, “Grandpa do you even know what’s in that ice cream?”

  • Jackie Smith April 22, 2010, 3:41 pm

    Great Post! We have insisited on sending our daughter’s foods/snacks to school since she stated eating “food”, even when she was in daycare and it was included, even now she’s in school and could buy lunch and snacks… She is only four and is already starting to feel peer pressure about why she eats what she eats. Our rule is if everything in your lunch bag is eaten, you may eat what is offered to you, otherwise you’re out of luck! My fear is that even though we try not to make it a huge issue, she ,may begin sneaking food, especially treats….

    • Christina April 23, 2010, 9:56 am

      Welcome, Jackie. One of the reasons we let our daughter have birthday, holiday and party snacks that we otherwise wouldn’t eat is because we don’t want her to go crazy and rebel later. (Hmmm, come to think of it, that’s the only reason we let her have that stuff. LOL.) As a result, she’s tended to self-regulate (eating only half a piece of birthday cake, for instance). I think that’s mostly because her taste buds have grown accustomed to wholesome sweet treats made from real ingredients, but I think some of it may be that she knows she doesn’t need to gorge or binge out of fear that she’ll never get the fake sugary stuff again.

      What’s funny is that she doesn’t even like most of the fake stuff (and she knows it’s bad for her), but of course there’s just something fun about being 6 and eating a blue cupcake. But that’s such a tiny fraction of what she eats that we don’t sweat it (too much).

  • Lori April 27, 2010, 3:24 pm

    Our 12-year old brings his lunch every day…super boring stuff like almond butter and homemade jam on millet flax bread and his snacks are usually strawberries or gluten from pretzels and he drinks water. He has never told us that anyone criticizing him for his lunches, but he has told us that his friends often want to trade their cheese doodles for a bowl of strawberries. Unfortunately, sometimes he does the trade. You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink too. Right?

    I like this post; I often hear my son say in a condescending tone what so and so brought to lunch that day and we try to remind him that he should not judge others. He will say, that he tries to warn his friends that certain things are bad and he finds that most kids response will be; “but it is low fat or has no calories”, which at that point my son realizes they do not get it at all and moves on.  But we do remind him to just live and let live.

    • Christina April 30, 2010, 1:23 am

      When my daughter was in preschool, I’d sometimes hear how other kids wanted her snack instead of what the school had provided. No doubt some of it’s the novelty. But I also think there’s a biological pull toward real, fresh food, and kids are pretty good at listening to their bodies (if we let them).

  • Melissa Graham May 26, 2010, 6:53 pm


    It’s always interesting question about healthy eating and other kids. It sounds like we’ve raised our 6 year old similarly to yours. We provide healthy options while occasionally letting him eat some non-healthy items. We also explain how important it is to not be judgmental about what other kids eat. Usually, it’s not a problem, sometimes however . . . well you know.

    Two examples, his end of year field trip is coming complete with lunch from McDonald’s. Luckily, I did get an email from his teacher saying that he could bring his own since “we know Thor doesn’t eat that way.” Their solution for the 2 vegetarian children is to get a “grilled cheese” i.e. taking the hamburger off the bun. We’ll be making a very happy meal for Thor, thank you.

    Or the recent snack he was given after Tball even after the parents were asked to bring snacks without a lot of added sugar and salt: Doritos and HFCS sweetened fruit punch. He said no thank you.

    I will always ask him not to be preachy and judgmental, because it’s just impolite. I just wonder when it became appropriate for institutions like schools to be afraid to offend the parents doing the wrong thing as opposed to the ones teaching healthy habits.

    I’ll be writing about our very happy meal on my blog, http://www.littlelocavores.blogspot.com sometime the week of the 7th. Check it out.

    • Christina May 26, 2010, 7:19 pm

      Such a great point about schools. I suspect it’s because the majority of people do eat “that way,” and so we’re seen as the touchy fringe parents who need special accommodations. I feel very fortunate that my daughter’s school and teachers get it, but I know that’s unusual.

      Cannot wait to read about your “very happy meal”!

  • Dr. Susan Rubin November 17, 2010, 8:09 am

    The influence of peer groups gets stronger as kids get older. This is one of the reasons that it is worth the effort to increase the Food IQ in schools. I do not mean by being preachy. If kids and school administrators fully understood the impact of poor quality food and “faux food” on personal and planetary health, I’m convinced they would make better decisions.
    Nourish, a new curriculum that can be utilized by teachers, parents, scout troops does a great job with this.

    • Christina November 17, 2010, 8:17 am

      Yes, absolutely. I’ll actually be writing more about Nourish soon.

  • Dina Rose January 27, 2012, 5:10 pm

    We just say, “Different families do different things.” It’s true and it’s non-judgmental.

    Also, teaching kids that it’s OK to be different is way more important than teaching them that to be different is somehow bad.
    Dina – http://www.itsnotaboutnutrition.com

    • Christina January 28, 2012, 11:14 am

      Dina: I just left this comment on Facebook, and it seems like a good response to your comment, too!

      Yes, we’re big on explaining that different people eat different things (for different reasons). But since we’re also teaching Tess that the choices we make are the healthiest choices, there does come a time when judgment plays a part. Inadvertently or otherwise. Which is a tricky road to navigate. And which is why we tell her that lots of people are still learning (as are we).

  • Titia January 27, 2012, 5:11 pm

    Nice article, thank you. I have three teenagers in the house and we talk a lot about healthy choices. They now realise fully that we make different choices from many others and they try to find their way in ‘being part of the group’ , what their parents teach them, respect for others, awareness and their own beliefs. It is great to talk with them and to see them grow, finding their way and being proud of who they are. Making healthy choices in food is nourishing in many ways!

    • Christina January 28, 2012, 11:15 am

      “Making healthy choices in food is nourishing in many ways!”

      That’s a lovely sentiment, Titia. I agree completely.

  • Aimee Roseborrough January 28, 2012, 11:05 pm

    My child is experiencing the judgmental thing now in Pre-K! She just told me today that kids said her lunch was yucky. So messed up. It makes me so frustrated. These kids are eating crap and say what she’s eating is yucky when it’s a homemade nutritious meal. How do I deal with this?

    Also, does Tess feel left out or sad because she’s not having the snack everyone else is having and how do you deal with this? I would love to have my daughter bring her own snack, but I think she would be sad.

    • Christina January 29, 2012, 10:38 am

      Aimee: That really stinks, and it goes to show how much adults influence kids’ perceptions of food. How else would those tiny kids know to call someone’s food yucky if they hadn’t been taught that at home? Ugh. We fortunately never had to deal with that sort of response at such a young age, though we’ve definitely seen it as Tess has gotten older.

      The way we’ve taught Tess to deal with it is to: a) ignore it or b) tell the offending kids that it’s rude to say things about what other people are eating. The former is a tough concept for a pre-K kid to grasp, but I think children that young certainly can understand the idea that “if you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything.” So you might explain to your daughter that if other kids say rude things about her food, she should tell them that’s not nice. And she should enlist a teacher or aide if the harassment continues. And all the while you can continue instilling in her that it’s a wonderful thing to be an individual and to make choices that are healthy for our bodies.

      It’s my firm belief that children should be taught to embrace their differences in every aspect of their lives, including food. And I know from experience that they’re never too young to start understanding that.

      As for feeling left out or sad, that honestly has never been an issue. Because we’ve educated Tess about why we provide our own food in many situations (and because we also make sure that food is delicious!), she doesn’t view it as being deprived. In fact, many times she asks for an alternative to the birthday treats other kids bring to school, simply because she prefers the taste of ours, lol. There have been a few times that she’s requested something specific after seeing friends with it, and in most cases I’ve gotten some and let her taste whatever it is, but she almost never wants it again. And if she does, we find an alternative that fits the way we eat.

      What’s interesting is that, as she’s gotten older (she’s now 8), she’s become a more active participant in all of this, not only by making good choices, but also by talking with friends about food. (Really talking.) So it’s even more important now that I keep making her part of the conversation, because the older she gets, the greater the outside influences will be.

  • Aimee Roseborrough January 30, 2012, 12:33 am

    That’s so great that she prefers your treats to the junk stuff. Unfortunately ours seems to have inherited my sweet tooth and likes any sweet stuff. She will gladly gobble down a huge piece of cake and wash it down with juice or lemonade and not think twice about it. We talk to her all the time about making healthy choices and why, but the last time we let her have hot lunch at school she choice apple juice to drink (over milk). That was disappointing to say the least. My husband has offered to that if she passes up the bad treats at school, he will make cookies or whatever with her at home, but I just could see her feeling left out when everyone else is eating their disgusting blue store bought cupcakes. Anyways, I’m planning on passing this little flyer out to the other parents in our class and maybe it will help: http://www.nourishmd.com/images/pdf/healthyparties.pdf

    • Christina January 30, 2012, 10:22 am

      Aimee: Trust me, Tess has a sweet tooth! (Though fortunately she’s more of a chocolate girl than a neon candy girl.) And it’s not like she never wants to eat the junky sweets. But, over time, her taste buds have come to prefer more wholesome sweets. Your daughter is young, so if you keep offering good choices, eventually you’ll see progress. (Really!)

      That NourishMD chart is great. (I shared that on the Spoonfed FB page last week!) And hopefully other parents and teachers will be responsive. In the meantime, though, you might want to think about sending your own snacks. I think we need to be careful about assuming how our kids will react to something. We sent snacks from the very beginning of preschool, so that’s all Tess knew, but I know parents who’ve switched gears mid-stream without fuss. So you might just try it, you know? Because otherwise there’s the potential for that whole self-fulfilling prophecy thing!

      On a related note: As I wrote in this post, all through preschool we sent our own snacks, but we also allowed Tess to have the blue cupcakes or whatever was brought for a birthday treat. We did that partly for balance, partly for logistics and partly because they were small classes, so it wasn’t happening every week.

      But, over time, I’ve become increasingly intolerant of food dye in any amount. I wrote more about that here: The color of trouble. So now we’re pretty proactive about providing alternatives for school celebrations. And I’ve found that no one else much cares. So it’s been pretty easy. I wrote more about that here: Alternate school birthday treats. No offense necessary.

      Tess still eats the occasional dyed crap at an actual birthday party, but that’s a very rare thing, since most people whose parties we attend are pretty conscientious about this stuff. But in school? I see no need for it.

      I recognize that we all have different perspectives and comfort levels with this. But I think it’s important for parents to realize that we do have options, and that we can make this work without offending anyone or making our kids outcasts. The reality is often far (far) better than the expectation.

  • Cady December 10, 2012, 9:08 am

    Thanks for this. We send our son’s breakfast, lunch, and afternoon snack to school (along with organic milk for the week) and have worried he may feel different or that he’s missing out on something. He’s only three. So far so good, and his preschool teachers say that actually his classmates end up eyeballing his food a lot, commenting how they love XYZ too. We don’t bar the blue-frosted birthday cupcakes either; hopefully he’ll be old enough some day to skip those on his own (but maybe I’m dreaming!). I appreciate your thoughts about how to keep him respectful of others even as he learns to make (what we feel are) better food choices for himself.

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