Dear Melissa, 

Any advice on how to get semi-adult children to buy into the Whole30 (or at least whole foods over junk)? I didn’t set the best foundation for them, but I’ve learned a lot from doing multiple Whole30s and have tried to model that when they are home (ignoring the eye-rolling). Can I reinvent good nutritional influence this late in the game? –Deb, Litchfield, NH

Deb,

The short answer is YES, you can provide good nutrition influence, but some psychology (and patience, and letting go) must come into play.

Teens are tough—they’re easily swayed by peer pressure and convenience, but are starting to have the same concerns adults do when it comes to their health, habits, and relationship with food. Acne and other skin issues, weight gain, bloating and digestive distress, allergies, anxiety, depression, attention issues, energy crashes, sleep disturbances, feeling out of control with sugar and carbs… It’s obvious to US that the sooner they begin addressing these factors and regaining control over their food, the better off they’ll be later in life. But try telling a teenager, “When you’re in your 30’s, your dietary choices will catch up to you.” (Thirty! That’s, like, ancient.)

In addition, (older) teens are people too, and while their executive function may not be fully in place, they still make their own money, drive their own cars, buy their own food, and fall prey to the stages of change model; if they don’t think they have a problem, good luck convincing them there’s a need to improve their diets. Still, here are some tips designed to help you model good behavior and influence their choices as best as you can. (Yes, some of these are sneaky. All’s fair in love and your kids’ health.)

Good food at home. First, start transitioning (or do it all at once) away from keeping junk food in the home, and only offer healthy whole-food choices. If they’re eating under your roof, they’re going to eat your food… perhaps with some accommodations for family favorites or your food freedom options. If you’re not on a Whole30, feel free to bake some grain-free, sugar-free banana bread or make some homemade Larabars to reassure your kids that whole foods can be tasty, too. (Just don’t go overboard on the Paleo treats, or you’re only reinforcing the same “sweets” habits with less bad ingredients.)

Show, don’t tell. The best way to influence your kids is by leading by quiet example. As you mentioned, model the behavior you want to see, both during your Whole30s and in your food freedom. Statements like, “Normally I’d love a cookie, but right now it’s just not worth it; I don’t want to wake up craving sugar tomorrow” or “I’d love some ice cream, but just a bit—I know if I eat more, my face will break out, and that’s just not worth it” can have an impact on how your kids think about the Whole30 and healthy eating in general. (That is, NOT tied to weight loss, not food as reward or punishment, and not food as a means of showing love.)

Get them involved. If it feels like these changes are being imposed upon them, teens (notoriously rebellious) may resist even if they actually like the idea of eating a bit healthier. By involving them in the process wherever you can, you give some of the control back to them, and grant them the ability to feel empowered and confident in their choices. Plan meals together, find healthier swaps for soccer game snacks, buy a kitchen tool you all think would be fun (like a spiralizer), and encourage them to prep and cook meals together. Consider a family cooking class, knife skills class, or farm-to- table dinner event as a way of exposing them to healthy eating in a cool environment.

Hit ‘em where it hurts. If you know your kids are upset about specific health issues like acne, allergies, asthma, or attention issues at school, you can (gently) reinforce the benefits of your healthy eating habits specific to those areas. Showing them testimonials, offering your own experience with the Whole30 and your skin/allergies/focus, or reading a recent article linking acne with dairy may plant the seed they need to begin their own experiment. (Please don’t do this with bodyweight, though. Suggesting they change their diet to lose weight only reinforces the same toxic diet culture we’ve been stuck in.)

Know your audience. Calling in reinforcement in the form of Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies can really help you influence change here. You’ll have to talk to your child differently about doing a Whole30 whether they’re a Questioner or Obliger, and if they’re a Rebel, well, that’s an entirely different proposition. (Bonus: knowing this about your child will help you communicate in every area, so give it a read, and even involve the kids by asking them to take a fun quiz with you.)

Now, let go. Even with all of these strategies, your kids may still not take one ounce of your dietary leadership or advice… and to some degree, that’s going to have to be okay. Control what you can control (dinner that you make for the family), and understand that your kids have to learn these lessons for themselves. Continue to lead by quiet example, offer advice or resources whenever asked, and reinforce any desired behavior you observe enthusiastically, knowing you are doing as much as you can to instill good habits and a healthy relationship with food in your kids.

Best in Health,
Melissa


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Melissa Hartwig is a Certified Sports Nutritionist, and a 5-time New York Times bestselling author (It Starts With Food; The Whole30; Food Freedom Forever; The Whole30 Cookbook; The Whole30 Day by Day; and The Whole30 Fast and Easy Cookbook). She has been featured in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Forbes, Details, Outside, SELF, and Shape as the co-founder of the Whole30 program. Melissa lives in Salt Lake City, UT.

Photo credit: Marie Carmel Photography