Dr. Meg’s Food Advice
About the Guest
Tired of your kids scrunching their noses at the family dinner table? Family pediatrician Dr. Meg Meeker gives some wise advice for getting your kids to eat.
Meg MeekerDr. Meg Meeker is a pediatrician who has practiced child and adolescent medicine for 31 years and is an author of six books including the best-selling book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters; Strong Mothers, Strong Sons, The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers and more. She is a nationally acclaimed speaker on parenting issues and speaks at Dave Ramsey’s Smart Conference. She has appeared on numerous national television and radio shows including The Today Show, NPR, Today with Kathie Lee a...more
Tired of your kids scrunching their noses at the family dinner table?
Dr. Meg’s Food Advice
Bob: Is there a dietary double-standard at your house? Here is physician, Dr. Meg Meeker:
Meg: I think it’s very important for kids to eat what their parents eat. Don’t make your kids eat one way and you eat another way. In other words, if you have a child who’s getting chubby or is obese, don’t put the child on the diet and then you sit up and watch the football game in the evening with a bowl of chips and a coke next to you. That’s not fair. Everybody eats the same so you have family eating patterns.
Bob: This is FamilyLife Today for Tuesday, September 4th. Our host is the President of FamilyLife®, Dennis Rainey, and I'm Bob Lepine. We’re going to talk not only about family eating patterns today. We’re going to talk about health food, who’s in charge at your house, and who ought to be in charge. Dr. Meg Meeker joins us. I hope you’ll stay tuned.
And welcome to FamilyLife Today. Thanks for joining us. I’m just curious; do you like a good hot dog, if somebody serves you a really nice, meaty hot dog?
Dennis: I remember my last hot dog.
Dennis: I do.
Bob: Where was it?
Dennis: It was back last fall in the first game of the World Series that the Cardinals were in.
Bob: Yes, you were at the ballpark for Game One.
Dennis: Game One; and I thought, “You know what, it is totally filled with nitrates; it is probably filled with nuclear combustible material. . . “(Laughter)
Bob: One of those ballpark dogs.
Dennis: But you know what? It’s baseball and hot dogs with lots of pickle relish and mustard and I’m salivating even as I think about it.
Bob: How about Barbara? Does she like a good hotdog?
Dennis: She does, but she doesn’t break discipline like I would. (Laughter)
She would go to the ball park and eat peanuts.
Bob: Here’s my question: do you think if parents are feeding their kids hot dogs today they should be arrested? Are they negligent? Should they be taken into police custody? (Laughter)
Dennis: You know what? Let’s ask our resident pediatrician.
Bob: I think we should.
Dennis: She has been a pediatrician and has practiced adolescent medicine for more than 25 years. She’s the author of more than five books, including the best-selling books Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters; Boys Should Be Boys and Your Kids at Risk.
Dr. Meg Meeker joins us on FamilyLife Today. What do you think, Meg?
Meg: It’s delightful to be with you and are you asking me what I think about hot dogs?
Dennis: Should they be arrested?
Bob: Do you put kids at risk when you feed them. . .?
Dennis: You’re a doctor.
Meg: Well, I think if they get arrested . . .
Bob: I’m not talking about tofu dogs here, either. I’m talking about the real thing, you know, with all kinds of animal parts in them.
Meg: Well, I think if we advocate parents being arrested for feeding their kids hot dogs, then we need to have Dennis arrested because he just ate a hot dog a year ago. Right? (Laughter)
Bob: It’s tongue in cheek, but you’re talking to a lot of moms and a lot of dads. I know this sounds tongue in cheek. They really do want their kids to grow up and be healthy. You’re a pediatrician. Do you see parents going overboard in this area?
Meg: Oh, absolutely. And I’m going to say something that I didn’t know early on in my practice – I learned probably after about ten years of practicing: feeding kids is an extraordinarily emotional issue for mothers. It pushes a lot of buttons in a mother. Some of the most stressed mothers I see are those of children who are failing to thrive, they’re not gaining weight.
Some of the most stressed mothers I see are of girls who are thin and heading toward eating disorders when they’re older; but also mothers whose kids are overweight and they are struggling with their weight.
Here’s why I believe it’s so stressful for mothers: because there’s a primal instinct that moms have that if we can’t even feed our kids right, then we’re really bad moms. We measure how well we’re feeding them and giving them proper nutrition by their weight. So, if they’re not gaining weight or they’re overweight, it’s our fault.
First of all, that’s not true. But, second of all, it’s an enormous issue now because kids are marketed so much food all of the time, and they’re spending so much time looking at media --upwards of six or seven hours per day with some form of media -- and you know there are advertisements. The advertisements mostly, or very often, involve food.
Our kids are being barraged with all of this food and, as a mother, it really is frightening. “How do I guard my child against wanting to eat Cheetos and hot dogs and Slurpees all day long?” They constantly will come in and ask my advice as to how to help them navigate this. So, I spend a lot of time with this.
Bob: And you see a lot of childhood obesity.
Meg: I do.
Bob: It’s on the increase in our culture.
Meg: I do, I do.
Bob: So there are moms looking around thinking, “We’re not doing Lucky Charms at our house because that’s just going to lead my kids to grow up and be obese.”
Meg: Right; absolutely. There are a couple of tips I like to give moms. And I really do think they work because I’ve been at this awhile. The first one is, try not to make it an emotional issue; try to attack it just like any issue in your house. The way you eat is just part of your home life.
I think it’s very important for kids to eat what their parents eat. Don’t make your kids eat one way and you eat another way. In other words, if you have a child who’s getting chubby or is obese, don’t put the child on the diet and then you sit up and watch the football game in the evening with a bowl of chips and a coke next to you. That’s not fair. Everybody eats the same so you have family eating patterns.
Mom is in charge or dad is in charge of what those meals consist of. That’s your right and that’s the way it is. I don’t even care if the child is sixteen years old. You own everything in the home . . . (Laughter)
. . . including the food and the refrigerator and the contents, and the car or cars in the garage. You know, I made no bones about that with my kids. My son, when he went off to college when he was eighteen, said, “Well Mom, you can no longer own me.” I said, “No, but I own most of the stuff you have!” (Laughter)
Dennis: So, did your kids have Lucky Charms?
Meg: This is what I did. Our kids didn’t want Lucky Charms, but all kids want junk cereal, so here’s how I got around that. I would pour them a bowl of Cheerios or Raisin Bran and I would put a handful of junk cereal on top of it. That’s how I got around that.
In other words, all kids are going to want some kind of junk food, so let them have little bits here and there but it’s not their primary source of nutrition.
Bob: And fast food eating? I mean, that’s a big part of the issue these days.
Meg: It is. You know, once every couple of weeks – once or twice a month. That’s it. But their primary source of nutrition must come from really good meats and vegetables and fruits that are served in the home – and I say in the home because even a five year-old, if they’re outside your home and they’re eating, you have no control over what they’re eating at all.
So I think it’s important for parents to pack their kids’ school lunches because normal, healthy kids are always going to opt for fries and a burger over a salad. I’ve even had one little boy who came in and said, “No, my mom lets me eat school lunches and I have salad every day.” I said, “Well, what do you put on your salad?” He kind of looked at me and he said, “Well, on my salad I have croutons and ranch dressing.” That’s what his salad was. No lettuce, no veggies or anything!
You have no control. So pack your kids’ lunches. Be in charge of all the meals. Have mealtimes. One of the things that goes back, I think, to this thing that we were talking about in an earlier program, is that moms feel that their kids need to be happy all the time. They allow their kids to graze and eat whenever they want. I think this is ridiculous. You know, the kitchen is open three times a day and that’s it.
Again, it’s sort of an indulgence. “When my child’s hungry, I want him to be happy.” Well, keep a bowl of fruit out all of the time. Don’t hesitate being pretty strict about food rules. I think mothers are very hesitant to be strict because it feels like a complicated issue. They overthink it. If I restrict what my child eats, then they’re going to develop an eating disorder. If I talk to them, then they’re going to become. . . So we over think it.
Serving of food and handling of food should be just like anything else in the home. It should have an order to it and mom and dad are in charge of that order.
Dennis: You think that a lot of moms are obsessed with the happiness of their kids and it seems to me that food really plays into this.
Meg: Very much so. Very typically, the reward for many of the kids coming into my office, after they get shots, is to go get a “Happy Meal.” They want their child to have a reward and to be happy. Well, that’s just sort of the American way. Mothers are so much wanting their kids to feel happy and content.
If the child wants to go through the drive-through three or four nights a week, well that’s what I’m going to let him do because I don’t want to be a mean mom. I don’t want to scar my child; my child needs to be happy.
Bob: If a child is a husky child and a mom or a dad is starting to be concerned because the rest of the family is kind of average height and weight and this child is starting to look a little heavier, what should that mom or dad do?
Meg: Well, again, the whole family needs to eat like the husky child needs to eat, which is probably calorie restriction. Believe it or not, I have some dads who just don’t like to do that. “But I like my Doritos and I like my Haagen Dazs; I like this.” I say, “Well, if you need to get it then get in the car and go to the 7-11 at 11 o’clock at night. But don’t bring stuff into the house.” Dads don’t like me very much sometimes. (Laughter)
But, you know, again you can’t just put the child on the spot. It’s a family issue. The whole family has to eat that way, because a child will never succeed if you do that.
Dennis: Speak to the issue of eating disorders. It’s interesting we even categorize them as “eating” disorders. Is it really about the food? What is it actually about?
Meg: Yes. It’s really usually not about the food. I would say even if it’s an eating disorder where you’ve got obesity involved, because I think a lot of the same dynamics are at play there. Typically in eating disorders, we have usually a girl, though I’ve had two boys in my practice who had eating disorders, who are hyper vigilant about their behaviors. They’re hyper disciplined; they’re obsessive – almost obsessive-compulsive – about perfection and getting things right; and it’s really a control. They need to be in charge all of the time.
Most are depressed. Most are very anxious. Most have very poor self-esteem; a very low sense of “who I am.” Eating disorders are kind of like the perfect storm. A lot of things – a lot of factors – are coming together and erupting all at once. Primarily, it’s an issue where kids want control but, ironically, by the time they get really ill, they’re completely out of control.
Food is in charge, their thoughts about food, their thinking about food. But it really is sort of a working out, I think, of anxiety and depression and a hypervigilance to be in charge of something.
Bob: When you were feeding your kids when they were growing up, what kind of food rules did you have at the Meeker house and what about soda pop? Was soda allowed at the house?
Meg: No. I didn’t do soda pop, because I just think it’s terrible, you know, for your teeth. Now I like diet soda, but I did have to give it up for a number of years when my kids were young because they wanted what I was having and I thought, “Well, I can’t really do that.”
We had the “One” rule in our house. You got one serving of everything. I usually put --I was very boring -- three things on their plates. I put a vegetable, a starch, and a meat. I didn’t cook different meals for every child. See, that’s that happiness issue again. Many parents – many mothers – feel that they need to accommodate their kids’ eating desires. That’s not good for the child. It’s really unhealthy for the child.
Dennis: They turn into a short-order cook, don’t they?
Meg: They do. And I would say the majority of mothers that I see are short-order cooks. Because if you have four kids and they’re ten, twelve, fourteen, and sixteen, the chances that all four like the same foods are pretty slim. It’s important that they learn to eat the same thing that everybody else is eating because they’re a family unit – they’re not individuals.
Dennis: Alright, let’s say you have a child who just says, “I do not like macaroni and cheese,” no matter how you serve it; no matter how you dish it up. It’s a part of what you’re serving. As a mom, what are you going to say when it comes time for dinner and macaroni and cheese is on the menu?
Meg: Well it goes on their plate. When they’re young – and I mean four, five, six, seven, and eight – they have to take a bite. They have to try to train themselves to like it. By the time they’re ten, and they’re still putting their heels in the ground and saying, “I don’t like mac and cheese,” they don’t have to eat it. It doesn’t have to go on their plate. But they’re served what they’re served.
If they go to bed hungry, they’ll get breakfast the next day. Now that sounds so . . .
When you hear a comment like that, there are mothers out there who are going to want to call Child Protective on me. (Laughter) “She let her child go to bed hungry!” But kids aren’t going to starve.
Dennis: No, they’re not.
Meg: They’re not going to starve. We have, as moms - and I want every mother to hear this – we have the right to be in charge. See, we feel that we don’t have that right; that kids have the right to eat what they want. Well, who gave them that right? We’re in charge of what they eat.
I think there’s another very important dynamic at play here that we can’t overlook, and that is that kids need to understand that they’re part of a family. They don’t live as individuals under the same roof with a bunch of other people, but they fit as part of a family. There are things and behaviors and eating patterns that the family has that they need to learn to live with.
I think that kids who don’t have a sense of that really aren’t well-grounded. I see a lot of kids -- and this doesn’t have to do with eating – but it has to do with the sense that they don’t feel they’re needed in the family unit. They don’t have chores; mom and dad don’t need them. Mom and dad’s job is to get them to the right school, to get them to soccer practice on time, to get them to eat what they want, to take them to McDonald’s.
That’s not mom and dad’s job. There is a family dynamic that should be in working order. The child, even if they’re eighteen, needs to feel that they are needed in that order; they have a spot and a place there. That gives that child a sense of value. So it’s emotionally good for kids to sit down and to look at the family meal, all the same food on the plates, and go, “I don’t like mac and cheese. I’m not going to eat it.”
“Oh well, eat your broccoli and your salad and you can have breakfast in the morning.” It goes deeper than just the food.
Dennis: What do you think about using food as a reward?
Meg: I don’t advocate that at all because we do it too much. That sets a child up for really emotional eating. “If you’re feeling down, the way to feel better is to eat a chocolate bar.” I don’t think that’s healthy. There should be other rewards.
Bob: Meg, what about -- It seems like food allergies are just on the increase.
Bob: Like gluten-intolerance – You’re hearing more about it than I ever remember hearing about when I was growing up. What’s going on there?
Meg: Well, allergies in general are going up – seasonal allergies, allergies to different pollens and molds. I think that we’re diagnosing it more. One of the studies I read, very interestingly, said that allergies are going up because kids aren’t exposed to as much when they’re young, and so they’re not building proper immunity.
I do think that sometimes if we don’t know what something is, we either call it viral or it’s an allergy. It’s sort of a wastebasket term, if you will. “Well, I think the reason that you’re having these pains is because you’re allergic to something. You’re allergic to food.”
I hear parents complain a lot about their kids being allergic to milk or allergic to this. Well, a true allergy to milk is pretty rare. There’s an intolerance people have – an intolerance that their bodies may have to certain things, but true allergies are over-diagnosed, I think.
Bob: So a lactose intolerance may be a legitimate deal?
Meg: Exactly, exactly. But it’s not an allergy.
Bob: OK. Let me just ask you about – we started talking about hot dogs. Let me just ask you about peanut butter. Did you feed Peter Pan or Jif, or did you go get the good all-natural, only-peanut peanut butter?
Meg: I fed Peter Pan and Jif.
Bob: With the Crisco mixed in with the peanuts!?
Meg: I did, I did. My kids loved it, but. . .
Dennis: Bob, Bob – there’s not Crisco in there.
Bob: What do you think’s in there? What do you think is in there with those peanuts? It’s Crisco, okay? (Laughter)
Meg: You know what, I made homemade jam. So I put the homemade jam on it, which probably has a lot more sugar than the store-bought jam. (Laughter)
But that’s how I balanced it, see. I made myself feel better. I did. Because you don’t want to get nutty about anything. Again, whether you use Jif peanut butter or whether you get the really, really good stuff – I think if the kids like Jif rather than the really good stuff, you pick your battles and just a little bit of everything is fine for kids.
Dennis: So what about the kid who digs his heels in and refuses to eat, speaking of a battle line, and they refuse to eat their meal?
Dennis: Did you let some of your kids go hungry at dinner where they didn’t eat anything?
Meg: I did, I did. It didn’t happen very often because my kids are good eaters, but I did. There were times when they didn’t eat, but there were just probably a handful of times when I said, “OK, that’s it. You’re not going to get dessert,” or whatever. We didn’t have dessert every night, but, you know, “You’ll get breakfast in the morning.”
Dennis: What about toddlers, when they spit their food out and that type of thing? I mean, that drives moms crazy!
Meg: A healthy toddler – a healthy two- or even three-year-old – if you’re lucky, will eat one good meal a day and forego the rest. That drives mothers crazy. Again, it’s because we feel like we’re not being good moms if we don’t feed them three square meals a day and get them to eat. So I tell them, “You know what? They’re young; they don’t need that many calories. If a child is going to spit out the food, just don’t give it to him.”
Dennis: What if he pushes it – looks you in the eye out of the corner of his eye and then starts pushing the peas over the edge and they’re cascading over the edge onto the floor?
Meg: I would start to laugh. (Laughter)
You know, I mean really, life can be fun with peas on the floor. You never want to have battles over food because kids will pick up on that and they will start to manipulate the heck out of their parents as they get older -- not a two or a three year-old, though I guess two and three year-olds can sort of be manipulative, too.
Dennis: Oh, absolutely!
Meg: Yes, but food should really be very low down on the things that kids think about during the day.
Bob: But you did take your kids out for ice cream on occasion at least, didn’t you?
Meg: Oh, absolutely! And I love to bake, and so I baked things. Usually two or three nights a week we’ have dessert. Yes.
Bob: And dessert’s OK that often?
Meg: Dessert’s OK. My kids never ate tofu. I wasn’t one of those moms; I just couldn’t do that. We had pot roast and mashed potatoes and the whole nine yards, but we had the one rule: one serving of everything. And I chose the serving size – one plate and that was it.
Bob: You had active kids, too, didn’t you?
Meg: Very active! That’s another thing: kids have to move. We have a generation of indoor kids, which is kind of sad. I firmly believe, particularly with boys, they have to be outside; they have to move - I just say “move their body.” I don’t care what they do but they have to move.
Dennis: I know you believe a lot in the family mealtime.
Dennis: What was your primary objective in having a family time around dinner?
Meg: Just to be together. We couldn’t get in arguments and we couldn’t get in fights. If I could see one building we had to sort of table that until later, but it really was supposed to be a very enjoyable, fun time together.
I will honestly say it still is. When our kids come and visit us at home, we will sit for two hours around the breakfast table and talk about things, talk about everything. We problem solve now as adults. So it’s a way of establishing healthy relationships, healthy communication. It’s a way to do it in a warm environment because most kids like food and they like what’s in front of them.
I feel it’s very important. Even if kids were busy or they had eaten, say, I would say, “OK, but you sit with us. You sit with us for ten or fifteen minutes because this is what we do.”
Dennis: When we had our family time, we averaged one spill per meal – sometimes two or three; some of them shot all the way across the table, you know, and nailed another kid. It was astounding how chaotic our dinner time could be. I always wanted to hook up some kind of measuring device of what the level of decibels were as all eight of us ate. It was the noisiest time – talking, chatter, all the conversations occurring. That really is rare, I think, in a lot of families.
You’ve said a lot of very good things as we’ve talked today on the broadcast but none better than calling people back to get a proper perspective of food, build some boundaries around it, how it’s going to be treated in your family, like anything else that’s available, and then establish some family times where you don’t just make food; you make memories and you make friends and you make relationships.
Bob: And you said you should put a lot of pickle relish on the hot dog? Is that what I heard you say?
Dennis: And a bunch of mustard! (Laughter)
I mean the best hot dog is that big old foot-long hot dog coming out of the end of the bun . . .
Bob: You can barely taste the dog for all of the mustard and relish?
Dennis: Oh yeah, you’ve got to have mustard!
You know, we ought to run a straw poll: what do you like on your hot dog? Mustard, pickle relish, or ketchup? I know some are going to write in and they’re going to say, “mayonnaise.”
Bob: Chili cheese. It’s a chili cheese dog for me!
Dennis: Chili? Chili cheese?
Bob: Yes, it’s got to be a chili cheese dog. That’s the way to go.
You know, we have really pressed our friend Dr. Meeker out of her comfort zone
today by . . . well, I guess she was comfortable with this, but you’ve never written on this particular subject.
Bob: But I do want to encourage our listeners: Meg Meeker has written a number of books including Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters; Boys Should be Boys; and The Ten Habits of Happy Mothers. We’ve got all of her books in our FamilyLifeToday Resource Center. Go online at FamilyLifeToday.com for more information about the books by Dr. Meg Meeker. Our website, again, is FamilyLifeToday.com.
You can also get more information or order from us by calling 1-800-FLTODAY; 1-800-358-6329. That’s 1-800- “F” as in family, “L” as in life, and then the word “TODAY.” Ask about the books by Dr. Meg Meeker when you get in touch with us.
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This week, if you’re able to help with a donation to support FamilyLife Today, we’d like to say “thank you” by sending you a CD of a conversation that we had not long ago with Dr. Leslie Vernick. She’s a counselor and an author. We talked about relationships, particularly family or extended-family relationships that become emotionally destructive. What do you do? How do you handle those relationships? How do you pursue peace? How do you protect yourself when you need to?
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And we’d encourage you to join us back here again tomorrow when we’re going to talk about those times in life when you have to make a fresh start; when you have to begin again and maybe even believe again. Sharon Hersh joins us tomorrow to talk about her own journey and about the power of a fresh start. That comes tomorrow; I hope you can be here for that.
I want to thank our engineer today, Keith Lynch, and our entire broadcast production team. On behalf of our host, Dennis Rainey, I'm Bob Lepine. We will see you back tomorrow for another edition of FamilyLife Today.
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