We had a great victory today. Peter walked away from the refrigerator at night without eating anything. He wasn’t happy about it, but he did it, voluntarily and reasonably calmly.
How did we get to here from there? Let me tell you what “there” was like. Peter has an insatiable appetite. He always has. It has been a huge blessing because in the early years we could always motivate Peter to learn using tiny edible reinforcers, and to play by creating games around food (like egg hunts, and playing restaurant or farmer to market). However, it has also been a constant struggle to limit his eating and get him to exercise daily. When he was little, we had to put locks on the pantry and refrigerator.
But now that Peter is 14 years old, I figured it was about time for him to start taking charge and learning how to make good decisions about food and exercise for himself.
So here’s the system we created to make calorie counting easy and tangible for Peter.
We figured a growing teen boy probably needs around 2000 calories a day. If you symbolize each calorie as one cent, then 2000 calories equals 80 quarters. So each morning Peter gets a bag of 80 quarters. Each time he eats something, he “pays” for it.
Just think “1-2-3-4,” as summarized below:
|category||serving size||# calories||#quarters|
|veggie||1/2 cup cooked, 1 cup raw||25||1|
|fruit||1/4 cup dried or 1/2 cup raw (equals 1 small apple, orange, pear, or peach, 1/2 banana or grapefruit)||50||2|
|fat||pat of butter, 1 tsp oil, 1 tbsp salad dressing or cream cheese||50||2|
|protein||1 egg, slice of cheese, 1/2 cup tofu, 1 oz meat, 3 oz yogurt||75||3|
|carbohydrate||1/2 cup pasta, rice, or oatmeal, 1 cup dry cereal, 1 slice of bread or one small potato, or 5 cups of air-popped popcorn||100||4|
So when Peter has 4 quarters to “buy” a snack, he can see that buys either a 1/2 cup of crackers, twice the volume of diced fruit, or ten times the volume of air-popped popcorn (later at an advanced level, you might let him see you halve the volume if you add a couple teaspoons of melted butter to the 5 cups). That helps him make a smart choice.
Each time Peter exercises, I “pay” him at a rate of 5 calories per minute. So say we’re at the gym. I can give him a quarter every 5 minutes he stays working on that exercise bike to get him to keep going longer.
“Wait a minute, Pete. How much would that piece of cheese cost?”
“How much do you have left?”
“Then you have a choice. Three quarters equals 75 calories, which at 5 calories per minute equals a 15 minute walk. Want to go out and take a 15 minute walk with me?”
Hence the abrupt turn away and slam of the refrigerator door.
Wasn’t happy about it. But it was his own choice.