Moderation, part 2: Good things come in small packages

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At this time of year, I spend a lot of time trying to convince three little people of one simple fact: bigger is not always better.  From the first King Size KitKat bar that finds its way into a “lucky” trick-or-treater’s stash, to the “generous” servings of turkey, stuffing and pumpkin pie that are dished up at Thanksgiving feasts, I have one major learning objective for my kids: size matters. We can enjoy absolutely any food, as long as it’s consumed in moderation. A small KitKat eaten on Halloween after a nutritious meal and before a good toothbrushing: OK. A King Size KitKat, scarfed down in front of the TV set with a Coke and a packet of Doritos? Houston, we have a problem.

We live in a country of seemingly limitless opportunity. From a young age, we learn that if we can dream it, we can build it! If it already exists, we can make it bigger – and add more cheese. Don’t get me wrong: I love the spirit of thinking big here in the US, but one thing we haven’t yet learned is that, when it comes to our food, less really would be more for most Americans. When we eat smaller amounts of higher quality food, we maximize our enjoyment of one of life’s great pleasures: eating!

Michael Pollan advises us to “spend more, eat less” so we don’t end up breaking the bank on more-expensive, higher-quality food. The truth is that when we eat real, fresh food in modest amounts (even if it’s cooked with a pat of butter and a sprinkle of salt) it doesn’t take much to leave us feeling completely satisfied. In contrast, when we overindulge on poor-quality, low-nutrient foods, our bodies are left feeling cheated – and worse yet, guilty for overindulging! Here are some small changes that can help make every meal feel like a guilt-free indulgence.

  1. The Half Trick: The next time you, or your children, see something in a bakery window that looks irresistible, go ahead. Buy that chocolate croissant, cut it in half before you sit down and pack one half in a paper bag for tomorrow. Tuck it away, where it won’t be seen. Then enjoy your treat. The Half Trick is great for eating at restaurants, too!
  2. Sit down. When you’re eating, sit at a table and make sure there are NO screens to distract you. Then, focus on the taste of your food by eating a little bit more slowly and perhaps pausing between each bite. You’ll actually feel like you’ve eaten more than you have!
  3. Buy smaller plates and glasses. A small plate makes the food on it look more plentiful and your stomach is more likely to tell you you’ve had enough after the first serving. Researchers have actually proven that we eat more when we use bigger plates. The same rule applies to glasses! (Many hardware stores carry very affordable, sturdy dishes that are smaller than the gourmet ones at designer stores.)

Food should be enjoyed every day – and at every meal. By giving our children the gift of moderation, they’ll always remember that good things really do come in smaller packages.

Maya Adam, MD, teaches child health and nutrition at Stanford University and runs Just Cook for Kids, a 501c3 charity that helps parents shift their family’s eating away from processed foods and back towards fresh, simple homemade meals. She is the lead instructor for the online course Stanford Child Nutrition and Cooking, offered through Coursera. Her most recent post on Healthier, Happy Lives, gave more advice about enjoying healthy eating during the holidays.

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