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.
A subcategory under the indulgent feeding style is a practice called rewarding, in which a parent attaches a reward to eating or achievement, like, “if you eat your broccoli, you can have dessert” or “you got A’s, so let’s get ice cream.”
But using this practice can cause kids to change their hierarchy of food preferences and puts them at increased risk for weight gain. “The science tells us the children build a strong preference for the reward food, like candy or soda, while the target food, for example broccoli, falls to the bottom,” Castle explained.
A third type of feeding style is a neglectful or “uninvolved” style. Here, food and feeding are not high priorities for the parent, and so a parent may not plan meals or shop for food on a regular basis, and this can lead to insecurity. “When a child is not sure when food will be served or can’t get enough of a food or a type of food, they can become a bit more focused on food and exhibit behaviors that lead to overeating,” Castle said.
Authoritative style: ‘Love with limits’
The feeding style associated with the most positive health outcomes is known as an authoritative feeding style, which Castle defines as the “love with limits” style. This offers children boundaries and structure but still considers their feelings and preferences.
“A parent says, ‘do you want green beans or broccoli for dinner?’ The parent is still in control of the choices, so it’s a reasonable choice,” Castle said.
Feltman, who is also a mother of three, suggests that this style can include preparing your children’s meals, “but you allow them to decide how much to eat.” Asking a child to pick out a new recipe to try or to come food shopping with you can also encourage a healthy relationship with eating, according to Feltman.
According to experts, parents who offer this type of supportive environment and respect their children’s wishes are better able to help their children make healthy decisions when it comes to food.
“When you shift a bit of control to the child, we see so much more compliance and calmness around food and so much more happiness around the food,” Castle said.
Research has shown that an authoritative parenting style in general (not just with feeding), in which a parent maintains clear boundaries and rules but is also emotionally connected and engaged with the child, is correlated with a lower body weight.
In one study involving close to 900 children, researchers found that those whose mothers adopted an authoritarian or “controlling” parenting style had almost five times the risk of becoming overweight compared with children whose mothers had a more authoritative parenting style. Additionally, children of permissive and neglectful mothers were twice as likely to be overweight compared with children of authoritative parents.
“Families with an authoritative style have healthy-weight children, and their kids make better choices on their own, and they are more accepting of new foods,” Feltman said. “When you take away the pressure, the kids become a bit more adventurous and have a better relationship with food. They’re not going to go the birthday party and have four cupcakes.”
Let consequences happen
What if your child doesn’t want to eat, plain and simple?
“Your child has to come to the meal table, whether they eat or not. They must come; it’s a family event. You can have a conversation about why they are not hungry, but we have to do a better job as parents of respecting children’s appetites and let them own that piece of their bodily function,” Castle said.
Let consequences happen, and make them teachable moments. “If a child doesn’t eat his dinner and is hungry later, you can say, ‘we don’t have snack at this time. … We have breakfast tomorrow morning,’ ” Castle said.
Experts agree there are some basic strategies to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food.
Plan meals. “A child needs structure and a schedule, and part of that is providing meals and snacks at regular times and determining what their plate is going to look like,” Feltman said.
Don’t fear sweets. “Sweets have been so demonized that it’s almost natural for children to highly regard them and overreact around them,” Castle said. “As long as the majority of a child’s diet consists of nutritious foods, there is limited room for candy, cookies, cake or soda – or high-fat side foods like french fries.”
The way you include sweets will depend on what works for you as a family. Some parents might wish to wait until dinner is finished before offering children dessert, while others may feel comfortable serving a cookie or brownie on the dinner plate in an effort to avoid stigmatizing dessert as a “forbidden food.”
Converse with your children. What a child gets versus what they want can be two very different things, Castle explained. A parent might put a few Hershey’s Kisses in a child’s lunch box as a fun food, but the child may not want the chocolates and may instead prefer a small dessert after dinner. “It’s a conversation” to have with your child, she said.
Be a good role model. Demonstrating balance in your own eating is shown to a child over time. Experts say it’s OK for a child to see that a parent has likes and dislikes, but they need to show that they eat regular meals and prefer healthy foods, too.
“If your child sees you sitting on the couch with a big bowl of ice cream, that’s what a child will … absorb,” Castle said.
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Part of being a good role model is encouraging the whole family to eat the same meal, even if you need to deconstruct it. For example, if you are making chicken with couscous and vegetables, and it’s all mixed together, a child can eat the same foods, but you can portion out the ingredients if your child prefers eating foods separately, Feltman explained.
Treat everyone the same. Get one system and strategy in place for the whole family. That means feeding an overweight child with the same approach as an average-weight child. “If a mom says, ‘She’s OK, but this one I really have to watch,’ psychologically, that can really send the message that that child is not good enough,” Castle said.
“Loving with limits is a way of feeding children that can really level the playing field for all children and all personalities. The goal is to set the blueprint for raising all kids in the same way: prioritized, not stigmatized. It applies to the whole family.”
Lisa Drayer is a nutritionist, an author and a CNN health and nutrition contributor.