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The biggest complaint nutritional psychologist Marc David, MA, hears from parents is that their kids won’t eat vegetables. David, however, is more concerned about what they are eating: poor-quality fats and excess amounts of sugar and white flour. “If your family eats a low-quality diet, you’ll have a hard time getting your kids accustomed to foods like whole veggies and whole grains, and your entire family’s energy and immunity will suffer,” says David, author of The Slow Down Diet: Eating for Pleasure, Energy and Weight Loss. The even bigger problem, says David, is how today’s families are eating: rushed, solo or in front of the TV.

Here, he shares insights and advice:

EL | What are ways families can eat better together?

Mar David | The most important thing is to schedule meals together. Often, everybody is moving in different directions, so it’s good to find at least one day a week when you can all have dinner as a family. Once you schedule it in, it becomes a commitment, something sacred that you can look forward to.

Another key is to get as many people involved in the cooking as possible. It becomes less about eating together and more about preparing together. Even kids as young as 2 can be given something to do that they’re excited about and that keeps them occupied. And, you can set the standard that this is something we do together.

Experience Life | Given the obesity epidemic that is affecting so many kids, how do parents best teach their children to eat healthy?

Marc David | First and foremost, when kids are in the house, they can eat only what’s in the house. So, to any parent who complains that their kids drink soda all day long, I say: Don’t keep soda in the house.

Also, from a very young age on, kids model what their parents do, so if we want them to eat in a certain way, we have to set an example. Kids look at us and pick up all of our good habits and all of our bad habits. So, for example, if you’re a fast eater and don’t receive pleasure from your food, guess what your kids are going to do?

The next idea is what I call the “20 times rule”: A lot of foods you give to children maybe three or four times and they don’t like it, but if you give it to them about 20 times, there’s a point at which they start eating it. Look at you, look at me — there are foods we eat today that we didn’t eat 20 years ago. Why? Because we acquire tastes for food. It simply takes patience and persistence.

EL | What do you think of the “Clean Your Plate” rule many parents instill in their kids?

MD | I don’t believe in it. It assumes you gave the kid the right amount of food in the first place. It also doesn’t make sense to me because it doesn’t teach body wisdom — that is, paying attention to satiety. It’s no different than going to a restaurant where they serve really big portions and having the waiter tell you, “You must clean your plate.”

EL | Many kids who eat too fast are told “chew your food!” by their parents. Can you talk a little more about what you call the “psychobiology of chewing” and why exactly we need to chew?

MD | Chewing is really discernment. Yes, it’s a physical act — you are chomping your food and making it smaller and smaller so you can digest it — but what you’re also doing is discerning, tasting what’s in there. The more we chew food, the more the body is able to discern, Oh, this is good for me, I want more. Or, Oh, this is enough. Chewing is noticing; it’s giving the body time to tap into body wisdom. We just have to be alert and not go into habit or habitual eating.

EL | You’ve said that your favorite way to enjoy a meal is to be surrounded by family and friends — people you love. You’ve also written that we should dine with people who nourish us emotionally and intellectually. What effect does dining this way have on our nutrition, digestion and well-being?

MD | When we are in community, we can relax, and the body digests and assimilates most efficiently when it’s relaxed. Food is, to a great degree, a communal activity; there’s something very deep and cellular about sharing a meal. We are social creatures, and anything that supports our true nature will support our true metabolism.

This article originally appeared as “Resetting the Family Table.”

Marc David
Marc David , MA

Marc David, MA, is author of The Slow Down Diet and the founder of The Institute for the Psychology of Eating in Boulder, Colo.

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