Why have you focused your career around data?

As an academic economist, I’ve always been passionate about data as a framework for answering policy questions. When I became a parent, I realized that data was also a fantastic tool for helping me answer my parenting questions. While I was pregnant, and in the early years of parenting, I relied heavily on my data expertise to help in my decision-making – whether that was about getting an epidural during labor, or potty training my child!  

I’m passionate about the idea that everyone could benefit from data as a decision tool. My career goal has been to use my expertise to translate the data so everyone can use this to make better decisions in their pregnancy, their parenting, and beyond. 

What is the most common question you get from parents around kids’ nutrition?

First, let me say that – in general – questions about nutrition are at the very top of my topic list. Food and sleep are the only two topics I see consistently show up for people no matter how old their child is.  

Probably the top question I get is: how do I get my child to eat a variety of foods?  

When babies are first introduced to solid foods – through about 18 months or so – they are often (not always!) quite adventurous. They’re eager to try new flavors, and explore. They also usually eat a lot!  But around 18 months to two years, things change. Toddlers get picky!  The kid who last week had no problem downing a bowl of broccoli with tahini sauce is now only willing to eat beige foods. 

This picky-ness continues often through 6 or 7 years, and sometimes longer. It’s not that you cannot get kids to try new things in this time frame, but it can be a struggle. A lot of kids end up eating a lot of what we think of as “kid food” – grilled cheese, hot dogs, nuggets. There’s nothing wrong with those foods, but parents also want to make sure kids are getting vegetables, fruits and all the rest. 

The big question: how do I do this while also not making every meal a fight?

What is your advice for parents feeling overwhelmed with information and wanting to make the best decisions for their kids’ health?

First: try to remember that there are many good choices. I think the emphasis – more now than ever – on the idea of there being a “best choice” can put a huge amount of pressure and stress on parents. In nearly everything we do, there are many good choices and what works for one family may not work for another. The first step here might be taking a food off the stress gas and recognizing that you can be confident doing what works for your family. 

Second: when you do need to think about some bigger question about your kids’ health, try to control the decision rather than let it control you. I talk to parents about what I call the “Four F” approach to decision-making. Frame the Question – what is the question you really need the answer to?  Fact find – get the data you need, and put it all in one place.  Final Decision – pick a time to make the decision, and then move on.  Don’t keep revisiting your decision, which can drive you crazy.  And, finally, Follow-up – most of our decisions do afford us an opportunity to change them. So plan to revisit your choices down the line, to stay curious about what’s working, and what is not.

Hard and complicated decisions will always be hard, but structure can help us be confident in the approach to the decision even if we can never be sure we’ve got it exactly right. 

What role can the private sector play in promoting kids’ health? 

I believe the private sector has a huge role – even responsibility – in this space. The first part of this is providing products which actually serve health needs. The public sector is not a manufacturing entity, and it’s not a product design powerhouse. Public health advice can point parents to good choices for their child’s health, but only to choices which exist. The private sector has a unique opportunity to actually develop better products. 

How do you prioritize healthy eating and wellness in your own family?

A cornerstone of our household structure is family dinner. For us, this isn’t so much about the food as the opportunity to connect as a family, but it does give an opportunity to sit together in a context where we can model a healthy approach to food. 

One of the early pieces of advice about feeding kids that I got was: “you decide what’s for dinner, they decide how much.”  We’ve largely stuck with that approach, which gives people freedom to think about their own choices, while also making sure there are vegetables at least on offer.

A final point from here: I write a lot for people with young children, but my own children are now 8 and 12 and getting to an age when they make many of their own food choices. My parenting role then becomes much different – giving them the tools to make their own good choices, rather than making choices for them.  

Thank you so much to Emily for sharing her tips with us. We’re excited to keep collaborating with her as a member of our Kitchen Cabinet. For more on Emily, you can find her on social media at @profemilyoster; read her latest on ParentData or one of her three books on pregnancy and parenting: Expecting Better, Cribsheet, and The Family Firm; and stay tuned for more right here.

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