How parents feed their children, their ‘parental feeding-style’, or general attitudes and philosophies used to feed children influences the childs’ eating patterns and well-being both now and into adulthood. There is no doubt that what children eat is important for health, as a dietitian, supporting healthy eating is my passion and I understand the effects of a poor diet. We analyse nutrient intake and monitor physical health and growth, but often forgotten is the development of a healthy relationship with food and eating behaviour; two things which strongly influence the well-being of the child and future adult.
Ideally, children will not only eat, but enjoy a wide variety of nutritious foods in a happy and relaxed manner (ie without experiencing pressure, guilt, shame or anxiety around eating). Developing this eating behaviour in children will track into adulthood and set them up for good health. Additionally, for optimising well-being children will be supported to eat intuitively, eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. This will set them up with more body trust, a positive relationship with food and prevent their need to rely on external measures of regulating food intake such as dieting (which can have severe negative effects on overall well-being- a story for another article!). Fostering the development of these is the tricky part and largely comes down to how they are fed and their experiences at mealtimes.
Parents are not only responsible for what foods are available and offered to children, but also for the mealtime environment and the nature of the child's early interactions and experiences with food. This shapes eating patterns, emotions and attitudes around food which last years, decades, or even a lifetime ahead. Most parents are in pursuit of ‘perfect nutrition’ for their child and while they have a fair idea of ‘what’ foods make balanced nutrition and ‘what’ they are striving for their children to eat, they’re often getting lost in the ‘how’ to achieve this, or ‘how’ to go about feeding their little ones . How to encourage them to be adventurous and confident with eating new foods. How to encourage them to enjoy a wider variety of vegetables, or even how to get them to eat a single vegetable sometimes! How to reduce fussiness. How to encourage a broad and healthy palate without compromising their relationship with food or eating attitudes and behaviours. The impact of 'how' parents go about trying to achieve this, their ‘parental feeding-style, is often not considered.
How we feed kids, or our style of feeding them and their mealtime experiences can affect the development of eating behaviour which strongly influences not only long term eating patterns and variety of foods enjoyed, but also body trust, body image and risk of obesity, mental health concerns and disordered eating. Parental feeding style is crucial.
Feeding children is thankless and challenging. The worry and stress parents have at mealtimes impacts the way they feed their children, or their feeding style.
Parents are often concerned their kids don’t like vegetables and don’t eat enough of them so they force them to sit at the table until they’ve eaten all veggies on their plate. They’re worried their kids aren’t having enough calcium, so they force them to eat yoghurt or cheese whether they like it or not. There is also a lot of bribery taking place at the dinner table, “eat your vegetables and you can have dessert”
I also see a lot of parents not wanting to say “no” to their children. They’re cooking several different meals per night to suit the child’s ‘likes’ in order to avoid tantrums or complaints about the meal. Or, providing only a limited variety of meals/foods which caters to the child’s ‘liked’ foods. Parents are also busy, and are often just trying to survive, so are avoiding resistance from kids at mealtimes. They’re anxious about whether their child is eating too much or not enough, and are often self-admitted “control freaks” when it comes to how much their children are eating.
Parents are doing their best.
Feeding style strongly influences the interaction between parent and child around food and at mealtimes and consequently the development of childrens’ eating behaviour and relationship with food. There are four recognised feeding styles, of which parents usually use one most of the time and then sometimes mingle it with another.
Uninvolved (neglectful) style- Parents with this style tend not to place much importance on food and eating or on the importance of healthy nutrition for themselves or their children. There is typically not much planning or preparation for meals, pantries and fridges are often quite empty and/or lacking in a variety of nutritious foods. This can leave children feeling insecure about when and what food they will eat and can become overly focused on food but with limited exposure and acceptance of a variety of nutritious foods.
Indulgent (permissive) style- Parents which have this more lax feeding-style say ‘yes’ a lot, they indulge their children’s every food wish and with not many rules and boundaries around food. The parent may initially say ‘no’ to the treat or particular food requests, but can be easily persuaded by the nagging child who eventually hears “well okay, yes I will cook that for you.” The children will often hear things like “sure, you want cookies, no problem”. These parents will cater to the child's preferences and meal requests and tip-toe around the foods the child doesn’t like to prevent refusal to eat the meal. Children experiencing this style often don’t have food boundaries or structured meal and snack times, they can help themselves to whatever food they want and therefore, find it difficult to regulate their intake of unhealthy foods, and are not encouraged to try and accept a wide variety of nutritious foods. Using a ‘reward’ approach is very common with this style of feeding, though I think most parents use it from time to time. This is when there is a food reward attached to something such as “if you eat your peas, you can have dessert”, or “if you are well-behaved, you can have a lollipop”. This ‘rewarding’ approach, while fun for the kids, changes their heirachy of food preferences. Research shows that children learn that the reward foods are more valued and they build a strong preference for those foods and the healthier target food, the peas, are less desirable and may seem like a punishment or a chore to eat.
Controlling (authoritarian) style- This approach is based on what the parent thinks is best, with little/no consideration for the child's preferences. This is the "you cannot leave the table until you’ve finished everything on your plate" style. The parent can be very focused on the nutrition quality of the child’s diet and controls not only what, but also how much they believe the child should eat. Commonly, the parent believes they know exactly how much the child needs to eat at every meal and ignores the child’s preferences and natural appetite which fluctuates with growth patterns, daily activities etc. While the child may eat their veggies most days (because they’re forced to), the child may not be supported to enjoy the food and is less likely to eat a varied diet later in life. Also, the child loses their innate ability to self-regulate their appetite and eat according to their hunger and fullness. They are taught that how they feel is not important, but eating the amount they’re told to, is. Weight problems, both overweight and underweight, typically arise in children experiencing this feeding style.
Diplomatic (authoritative) style- This feeding style is the most balanced approach for developing desired eating habits, or the best at getting kids to eat healthily, both now and in the future. Much research has shown it to be associated with the most positive health outcomes for the child. It encourages the child’s independent thinking and eating regulation while setting boundaries at the same time. It recognises that parents play a role (they decide what will be served, when and where), and respects the fact that the child also has a role to play (deciding how much they will eat from what is offered). Though there is structure and boundaries, the child’s feelings and preferences are considered and there is no pressure involved for the child to eat more or less. There is trust in the child’s ability to recognise hunger and fullness signals and then eat the amount of food to satisfy those cues which forms the basis of this feeding style. Maintaining control of what is offered, or the options available for the child, the parent may ask “which fruit would you like in your lunchbox today, apple or pear?” or may put several vegetables out on the dinner table for the child to choose how much of each they eat (without pressure). This empowers the child's autonomy and confidence in making healthy decisions. Research shows children experiencing this feeding style are more compliant, calm, happy and less anxious around food and mealtimes, are a more healthy weight, can make better food choices on their own, are more accepting of new foods and eat a wider variety of nutritious foods when compared to children experiencing other parental feeding styles. When nutritious foods are offered regularly and the pressure is taken away (ie no forcing or bribing to eat everything on the plate), kids become more relaxed and adventurous with food and develop a better relationship with food. Research shows that these children are a more healthy weight, can make better food choices on their own and eat a wider variety of nutritious foods when compared to children experiencing other parental feeding-styles. Parents who approach feeding kids this way have fewer struggles with healthy eating in their kids!
How can you optimise your feeding style?
The division of responsibility, developed by Ellyn Satter and based on the research in feeding practice provides guidance and a structure for parents to optimise their feeding style. The division of responsibility encourages parents to make the boundaries for and decide the what, when, and where of feeding and then trust and support the child in deciding how much to eat from what is provided. This approach takes the pressure off children, removes the anxiety around mealtimes and supports the development of intuitive eating and childrens’ autonomy around healthy food choices. It supports the development of a healthy eating behaviour and positive relationship with food.
While this approach takes some learning and practice and is best achieved when followed full-heartedly, it is well worth it! It is less stressful and more beneficial for both children and parents! Consulting with an accredited dietitian for individualised advice and strategies to support you working towards this diplomatic (authoritative) feeding style using the division of responsibility would be valuable.
In the meantime, to be helpful without harming your child’s eating behaviours:
1. You decide what food is available and offered, and trust your child to decide how much they eat from what is provided. It is recommended that parents decide ‘what’ foods to offer children. Be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering specifically to their likes and dislikes. Resist giving in too much to the food requests of little ones, though some compromise may be a great idea. For example, if there is nagging for macaroni-and-cheese, offer it only sometimes and as a side to the rest of the family meal. This exposes them to and encourages them to explore foods they may not have yet accepted while having a comfortable food available also. Offer a variety of nutritious foods that you/your family enjoy eating, and trust that your child will learn to enjoy those foods also. Offer several different vegetables where possible, ideally some which are accepted and liked and some which are not yet accepted, and allow children to choose which ones they eat and how much they eat. If food textures is an issue for your child, offer foods with a variety of textures at the same meal for them to explore and choose from. As tempting as it is (verrrry tempting!), avoid pressuring or bribing children to eat more (or less) of certain foods offered. Don’t be too worried if they don’t eat much of the veggies (easier said than done), remember that pressuring or bribing will do more harm in the long term and with regular exposure of these veggies in a relaxed no-pressure environment, kids will learn to accept and like new foods. Seeing parents eat the same foods they are offered also increases the likelihood of the child trying and liking the food. Be patient.
So, there is no doubt that children need to eat healthy foods, but the way in which parents go about encouraging these eating patterns is important.
I understand the importance of meeting adequate nutrient intake for health, but through my training and practice as a dietitian (and parent of 3 little ones) I have learned a lot about feeding dynamics, the impact of feeding styles, and the value of fostering intuitive eating. Forcing, bribing or tricking children to eat well is stressful and doesn’t work, in fact it does harm. In the pursuit of providing short-term ‘perfect nutrition’ for your child, the impacts this may have on your feeding style can be detrimental to your child’s eating behaviour in the short-term and long-term. There is plenty you can do to optimise your style of feeding or the ‘how’ you feed children, therefore setting your child up for a healthy eating behaviour and relationship with food whereby they eat (and enjoy) a wider variety of nutritious foods in amounts that are right for their body, in a relaxed and happy manner!
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