Even when a child is at a healthy body weight, fear can cause parents to worry about food
If treats are eliminated from the home, children can become focused on the foods they are not getting
If you’re a parent, you are well aware that managing your kids’ activity schedules, homework, doctor’s appointments, play dates and much more all comes with the territory. But an important part of the parenting job description – and one that may be hidden in a cloud of unconscious thought at times – is being the gatekeeper of your child’s diet.
As a nutritionist, I am constantly exposed to information and studies about healthy eating, and I’ve counseled quite a few parents on how to maintain a healthy diet, as well as a healthy home. Yet I still find it incredibly challenging to instill healthy eating habits in my daughters.
“Raising a healthy eater is an 18-year job,” said Jill Castle, a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert and mother of four. But it’s also one of the most important things you’ll do as a parent, according to experts.
Even more daunting – or motivating, depending on how you look at it – is that your own “feeding style,” which closely mirrors your parenting style and encompasses your attitudes and actions around food, is one of the biggest determiners of your child’s relationship with food and, by extension, his or her health.
“We have evidence in the childhood nutrition literature that feeding styles may influence not only a child’s body weight but their relationship with food and how they behave around eating,” Castle said.
The way we choose to feed our children is deeply ingrained and reflects our own experiences with food as a child. “As parents, we come to the table with our own history and feeding style,” she said.
There are four known feeding styles that have been written about in the scientific literature, but three of them may negatively influence a child’s emotional and physical health, according to Castle, who is also the creator of the Nourished Child Project, an online program designed to teach parents how to adopt healthy habits to raise healthy children.
Authoritarian feeding style
The first is an authoritarian or controlling feeding style. Here, a parent may be inclined to push a child to take more bites of food or ask a child to “clean your plate.” The parent might also restrict a child’s access to non-healthy, non-nutritious foods.
With this parent-centered eating style, rules about eating are directed by the parent, and without consideration of a child’s views, rather than self-directed by the child and his or her appetite. For example, a child may empty their plate even though they are full, in an effort to please their parents, Castle explained. When a child’s appetite is ignored, he or she may lose the ability to regulate his or her own internal hunger and fullness cues, and this can cause weight problems.
The pressure to eat can be subtle. “In a vacuum, ‘take two more bites’ doesn’t look horrible … but over time, that message can influence a child’s ability to honor and recognize their own hunger and fullness cues and listen to their own bodies,” Castle said. “If you are full, you are full, and beyond fullness is overeating.”
If second helpings are not allowed or sweets and treats are eliminated from the home, children can become even more focused on the foods they are not getting.
“When he or she is around [sweets], that child might lose control and be very uninhibited,” Castle said. “Parents will come to me and say, ‘I’m finding wrappers in my child’s bedroom, my child seems obsessed with food, and when I see them at a party, my kid is piling their plate with sweets and treats, and they are always eating.’ ”
Another example is when parents keep sugary cereals out of the house, and then the child goes to a friend’s house and “they raid the cereal cabinet,” explained Victoria Stein Feltman, a registered dietitian and co-founder of Apple to Zucchini, a healthy-eating resource for parents and families.
Even when a child is at a healthy body weight, just the fear that they may become overweight can cause parents to be alert and worried about the way the child is eating. As a result, they may want to correct their children’s habits. “These parents are at higher risk of implementing a stricter feeding style that includes restricting foods, which can ultimately backfire,” Castle said.
In fact, one study involving young girls found that those whose mothers highly restricted their food intake were more likely to eat when they weren’t hungry. Restricting children’s food intake has most frequently and consistently been associated with weight gain among children, according to a literature review on child feeding behaviors.
Permissive and neglectful feeding styles
A permissive or “indulgent” feeding style is one in which a parent has loose reins on what a child eats and the access a child has to food. “A parent may say, ‘sure, you want cookies, no problem.’ There are few boundaries in the kitchen, and a child can help themselves to whatever they want, whenever they want; there are no delineated time frames given to eating,” Castle said.
Parents have less control and boundary-setting around sweets and treats. “These parents are a little hesitant to say ‘no’ to kids around food. … They seem to have less parenting control over that piece of feeding and eating,” Castle said. As a result, these children may have a difficult time regulating their intake of unhealthy foods, and they may be at risk for gaining unnecessary weight.