Healthy babies are born with the knack to regulate their appetite; they eat when they're hungry and they stop when they're full. But early in life, most of us learn how to override that inborn ability. We discover that brownies tastes better than broccoli, salty crackers trump fruit, and soda is more fun than plain milk, and we want more junk food whether we are hungry or not.
Sure, some kids (not my three!) naturally clamor for carrot sticks and hummus, and could care less about overdoing it on cookies, snack chips, and sugary drinks, but they are the exceptions. Truth is, many children, especially younger ones, lack self-restraint—putting the brakes on when they've had enough or avoiding a certain food altogether—in favor of instant gratification.
It's really no wonder why self-restraint, a.k.a., willpower, is so difficult to practice. Restraint is pushed to the limits in a world where children and their parents are bombarded all day long with messages and opportunities to eat sugary and fatty foods, and lots of them.
As parents, we want to teach our children self-restraint (many of us parents would like to have more of it ourselves, at least sometimes). The trick is to help kids pay attention to their hunger without policing every bite they take and to avoid food fights. Excessive monitoring of a youngster's food intake stifles his or her independence, and may lead to overeating when you're not around.
How to Build Willpower
Self-control is a lot like a muscle; the more you use it, the stronger it gets, according to researcher Roy Baumeister, author of
Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength. The authors of a recent study in
Psychosomatic Medicine: Journal of Biobehavioral Medicine suggest that healthy lifestyle choices may help better preserve the part of the brain that governs self-restraint. The authors also theorize that certain environments help reduce the temptation to overeat.
Here are six tips to help you help kids limit their intake of junk food without becoming the food police:
- Plan to succeed. It's much easier to make poor food decisions when you're famished. Plan meals and snacks with adequate protein, such as dairy, lean meat, beans and eggs, and fiber-filled foods, including fruits, vegetables, and whole grains to help you and your kids feel fuller for longer. Don't keep tempting foods like candy, cookies, and chips in the house (Note from Elisa Zied: If you do keep a few empty calorie, nutrient-poor treats in the house, store them on a high shelf behind closed doors to minimize mindless eating.)
- Sleep your way to self-restraint. Researchers suggest that when you're well rested, it's easier to walk away from that pint of premium ice cream that's calling your name. It's the same for children: self-restraint is more likely with a consistent pattern of adequate slumber. Show your children that you value sleep as part of healthy living.
- Model restraint. Actions speak louder than words. Limiting yourself to two cookies instead of gorging on six helps teach your children to better control themselves. In addition, by committing to modeling good eating habits for the sake of the kids by not overindulging, you strengthen your own willpower "muscle."
- Create positive peer pressure. Other children and adults may play a role in what your child eats. For the most part, surround yourself with people who will make it easier for your child to consume reasonable portions of high-calorie foods on limited occasions. Take the lead by serving healthy foods and limiting treats when your children have play dates.
- Recognize the limits of self-control. Willpower is a limited resource. All day long you and your child do things that sap your inner energy reserves, like get up early for work when you'd rather sleep in, or, in your child's case, sit quietly at his desk when he'd like to be running around the playground. It's much more difficult to control the urge to splurge when you're feeling stressed, which makes it that much more important to organize your household and eating routine to reduce temptation.
- Trust your inner child. Your internal hunger cues may have dulled with time, but there's plenty of hope for your son or daughter's (and yours!). Start today to trust your child's instinct by not overfeeding them. Don't use any food, particularly sugary or fatty treats, as rewards. The earlier in life you start to do this, the easier it will be to teach self-restraint in the long run.
To help kids eat less and better, check out a recent Scoop on food post here.
How do you help your kids eat less and better?
Image of willpower via shutterstock.