If you have children, how much do you talk to them about the foods that they eat? A couple of weeks ago, The New York Times did a piece about kids who fear bad foods, mostly because their parents focus on them so much. I’ve been thinking about it ever since I read it.

I admit I talk a lot about food with my children. I don’t ban sugar from the house, but if they have one snack after school that has added sugar, then the next one has to be something like fruit, cheese or popcorn. I tell them that they’ve had enough sugar. Some parents, however, are taking what they will and will not allow their children to eat to extremes, and experts are beginning to wonder if this focus on healthy eating is unhealthy.

While scarcely any expert would criticize parents for paying attention to children's diets, many doctors, dietitians and eating disorder specialists worry that some parents are becoming overzealous — even obsessive — in efforts to engender good eating habits in children. With the best of intentions, these parents may be creating an unhealthy aura around food.

"We're seeing a lot of anxiety in these kids," said Cynthia Bulik, the director of the eating disorders program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. "They go to birthday parties, and if it's not a granola cake, they feel like they can't eat it. The culture has led both them and their parents to take the public health messages to an extreme."

I can see how this happens. My fourth-grader has anxiety over caffeine. At the beginning of third grade he had a two-month bout of insomnia. After a couple of weeks we were at our wits ends. I was so sleep deprived I felt like I had a newborn again. We started cutting things out of his diet – especially sugar and caffeine. After a while, the insomnia ended but the fact that perhaps it was caffeine that was keeping him awake stuck with him (the sugar part didn't, though).

Just last week, he was having trouble falling asleep and started to panic because he realized he had a Coke when he went out for pizza with my husband. In his panic he convinced himself that he was never going to get back to sleep, and we had a rough night.

There isn’t too much I can do about my son’s caffeine anxiety except learn from it. He’s getting older, and he’s going to have to make his own choices about what he eats when I’m not around to remind him of certain things.

I think it’s important that we teach kids to make good choices when they are away from us, but not to make them crazy about the choices. I’ve told my kids that if they are at someone else’s house and they are offered something they know I don’t serve in my home that’s it’s okay to have some if they want it. If they don’t, they need to say a polite “no thank-you.” They are never to tell someone, “I’m sorry my mom won’t let me have that because it’s unhealthy.” As far as birthday cake goes, let them eat it. And if they don’t want it, pass it over to mommy.

Kids have enough to worry about. We need to feed them good, healthy, whole foods when they are at home (and I’m good with throwing in the occasional treat), teach them about nutrition, and then let it go. To constantly harp on them about it will usually result in one of two things. Either they will worry like my son or the kids in the NYT piece and have food issues, or they may eat all of the junk they can get their hands on when they are away from us and have food issues.

How do you handle teaching your kids about good and bad food?

Image: opencontent 

Robin Shreeves ( @rshreeves ) focuses on food from a family perspective from her home base in New Jersey.

Let them eat cake
Is placing too much focus on healthy foods making our kids unhealthy?