Thinking about how to raise healthy children runs in the family, so it’s no surprise that when I started having kids I did a lot of reading, thinking, and talking about parenting. In particular, I spent a lot of time thinking about what kind of adults I wanted to raise and coming up with strategies and tactics to help get them there. I know that I am not alone in this type of long-term goal setting. In fact, I bet if we compared lists they would look remarkably similar: I suspect that you, like me, want your kids to grow up to be confident, empathetic, hard-working, compassionate, engaged citizens.
And while these goals help me frame responses to tantrums in the grocery store or fights between my son and his younger sister, they don’t necessarily help me at some of the busiest and most stressful times of the day: breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
Know Your Goal
Part of the draw of goal setting – in any aspect of our lives – is that it gives us a clear target: something to rally around, get fired up for, work towards. But setting a goal can also feel daunting and unattainable, especially if you’re not careful about how, and why, you set your goals.
It turns out that these different types of goals – how goals vs. why goals – sit within a neural hierarchy and activate different parts of our brain. By activating multiple channels we minimize potential stumbling blocks and maximize our ability to reach the goals we set. Without goals about why, it’s harder to keep on track toward meeting a goal, especially one that takes a while to achieve (place MOST parenting goals here, right?!). And without an idea about how you will achieve a goal, success is far less likely.
Describe and Visualize
In addition to setting why and how goals, it is important to also consider what motivates you. Some people like to move away from a situation (you want a new job because they don’t like your current boss) while others prefer to move toward a better vision of their future (you want a new job that builds your leadership skills). Knowing your motivation preferences can help you correctly frame your goals in a way that promotes and supports your motivation preference. Imagining yourself achieving your goals can also help you do just that: achieve them. A large body of evidence shows that when you visualize an action, the same region of your brain is activated as if you were actually engaged in the imagined activity. If your brain sees you do it, your body falls in line.
Why Set Feeding & Eating Goals for Your Kids?
So what does all this have to do with those harried meal times I mentioned earlier?
I have been working in the field of nutrition for more than a decade, researching the dietary changes that people can make to improve their health. But it took becoming a mother to realize that I was focused on only one side of the equation: I was only giving people reasons why. And even though I knew what I should be doing to promote health in my own family, it wasn’t enough. What I needed was a set of goals around how and why we – as a family - engaged in buying, preparing, and eating food. I needed an articulation of why I would make certain decisions and clear strategies for achieving those goals.
My food goals for my kids, in no particular order are:
- To be willing to taste new foods.
- To eat a variety of foods.
- To provide the skills necessary for them to listen to their internal signals of hunger and satiety.
- To involve them in meal planning and food preparation.
- To know where their food comes from.
I have learned many things since making these goals, but one of the most important observations I’ve made in the last year is that meals are easier: making decisions about what to serve for lunch or dinner, when to eat dessert, and whether or not to go to the farmers’ market on a rainy Saturday morning are no brainers.
Of course now it’s summer, which means the strawberries are juicy sweet and green beans are taking over the garden. So I’ve decided that if my kids want to eat cucumbers fresh from the vine and stuff themselves silly with watermelon and dripping ice cream cones everyday before they have had their daily servings of complex carbohydrates or lean protein then I’m going to let them. Because they’re kids…and that’s what I want to do too.
I’ve made a goal to revisit our food goals in September – because it’s important to me!
Kiyah J. Duffey, PhD
Director of Global Scientific Affairs at LA Sutherland Group
Adjunct faculty, Virginia Tech
Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now Director of Global Scientific Affairs and LA Sutherland Group. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three. In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of numerous scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.