Frustrating, right? Well, that's sort of what America's food marketers are doing to this country in the battle against obesity.
According to media industry estimates, advertisers spend $900 million every year on television shows aimed at children under 12. And more than two-thirds of that advertising is for food products: fast-food meals with action figures and dolls; sugary cereals with cartoon spokespeople; "juice" drinks that have about as much to do with actual fruit as Swedish Fish have to do with mackerel. The average child between ages 8 and 18 spends 3 hours a day in front of the television, and according to the Federal Trade Commission, kids ages 2 to 11 will see 26,000 TV ads this year—22 percent of them marketing food. And their message—that junk food equals instant happiness—is one that sticks with a child for all his life.
So how do you fight back? You can teach your children how to swim, starting with just these few basic rules.
Rule #1: PLAY PSYCHOLOGIST WITH YOUR KID
Nowadays, kids avoid vegetables like they're out-of-style sneakers; only one in five of them actually eats enough plant matter. If you want to reverse that trend, a little scheming can go a long way. Research out of England found that giving children a taste of a new vegetable daily for 2 weeks increased their enjoyment and consumption of that food.
Not all strategies sound as sinister as the exposure therapy. Giving kids ownership over what they eat is also a powerful play. Consider planting a garden. Studies show that kids' acceptance of fruits and vegetables increases after participating in growing them. No time to till? Simply letting your children choose their vegetables can lead to an 80 percent increase in their consumption.
Rule #2: NEVER SKIP BREAKFAST. EVER.
"Don't skip breakfast" is the persistent platitude heard 'round the world. Which may explain why so few pay attention—especially children. A 2005 study showed that kids skipped breakfast more than any other meal despite its reign as the king of meals. The effects of this epidemic are by now well known. Test after test shows that breakfast-eating students score higher on short-term memeory and verbal fluency, among many other academic benefits.
Maybe breakfast's most important contribution, however, is found not in its own nutritional value, but in its impact on the rest of the day's eating habits. Research says children eating a meal in the morning will themselves choose less soda and fewer fries while opting for more vegetables and milk throughout the rest of the day.
We know time can be an issue in the chaos of the early morning hours. But a nutritious bowl of cereal, cup of yogurt, or even microwaveable breakfast is never more than a few minutes away.
Rule #3: FORGET ABOUT FORCE-FEEDING
Whether it's a Clean Plate Club membership drive or castigations about starving Africans, efforts by parents to get their children to eat healthy foods can backfire. In a 2009 study of 63 children, Cornell researchers found that those whose parents insisted on clean plates ate 35 percent more of a sweetened cereal later in the day. If kids ate 35 percent more than 1 serving of Froot Loops every day for a year, they'd gain 4 pounds.
There is a corollary. A Pennsylvania study indicated that the restriction of specific yummy foods from children's plates actually increased the kids' long-term preference for and consumption of those foods. It's also been found that kids who are barred from having certain indulgences tend to eat more when they're not hungry.
The lesson here is twofold: First, there is a fine line between encouraging your kids to try new foods and forcing them to eat against their will. The negative tone and tenor of all those warnings about not finishing our lima beans when we were kids is probably one of the reasons why most American adults still don't eat enough vegetables.
Set a house rule that your children need to try a new food three times before deciding whether they like it. If they still don't dig it after the third attempt, then Mom and Dad need to let it go. On the flip side, banning foods from your household can backfire, so rather than forbidding certain foods, set up specific parameters for when treats can be enjoyed.
Rule #4: SHRINK YOUR SILVERWARE
According to another study from Cornell, portion size is the most powerful predictor of how much preschool-age children eat. And with the typical manufacturers' snack package being 2.5 times bigger than the appropriate amount for young kids, health-conscious parents fight an uphill battle.
Control what you can. Keep in mind that restaurant portions—even for kids—are egregiously oversized, so don't force them to wolf down every last tater tot. Splitting a dish with a sibling is never a bad idea (as long as you ask for two toys). At home, use smaller bowls, plates, and utensils. Jedi mind trick or not, there's plenty of evidence that kids will consume fewer calories when you downsize the dishes.
Rule #5: SET AN EXAMPLE (ESPECIALLY YOU, DAD)
The portion of America's food dollars spent on meals out increased from 34 percent to 48 percent between 1974 and 2008. Parents' increasing penchant for restaurant food can translate to nutritionally unsound decisions by kids.
One recent study laid the heaviest blame on fathers. Researchers at Texas A&M University say dads carry the most influence largely because when they take their kids to the Mickey D's, it's often as a treat or some sort of celebration. This enforces the idea that unhealthy eating is positive. Mothers, on the other hand, often choose fast food due to time constraints, so the food doesn't hold as much psychological sway.
Rule #6: TURN OFF THE TUBE
Since 1970, the number of television ads aimed at children has doubled to 40,000 per year, and several studies suggest that the amount of time kids watch television is a strong predictor of how often they request specific foods. This spells big trouble for one reason: Half of all TV ads directed at children promote junk food.
The solution is simple: Shove your kids outside. Surprise them with a bike, a soccer ball, a Chihuahua dog—anything to get them moving. More time spent outdoors means less time being exposed to television marketing. Of course, the larger benefit is that they get more exercise, which decreases the risk of a lot of bad stuff: obesity, diabetes, heart disease, even boredom.