Parents want their children to be healthy and grow and develop appropriately. Unfortunately, parents and caregivers may try to control what and how much a child eats so they become a “healthy eater,” but these good intentions can backfire.
For example, strategies like encouraging, bribing or tricking can increase picky eating and escalate mealtime power struggles. Pressuring to eat (as with the “Clean Plate Club,” even) can erode the ability to stop eating when they’re no longer hungry. Encouraging children to eat more of a certain food can increase their dislike for that food. Offering dessert as a reward for eating vegetables can make kids like dessert more and vegetables less.
Parents are more likely to set strict food rules when they have their own history of dieting or disordered eating. They may fear that their child will never stop eating, especially foods perceived as unhealthy. Here lies the rub: Restricting the amount or types of food — or even labeling foods as “good” or “bad” — can increase the desire to obtain and eat “forbidden” foods. This can lead to overeating when food is available, eating when not hungry and emotional eating — especially when highly palatable “unhealthy” foods have been restricted.
In fact, strict childhood food rules can lead to disordered eating behaviors that persist into adulthood. I have clients in their 60s whose disordered eating began when their parents either restricted or pushed food. Often, their parents (usually their mothers) didn’t have the best of relationships with food, themselves. If you’re a parent, both your food behaviors and how you talk about food can affect your child’s relationship with food. So any work you can do to calm your own relationship with food and body creates a ripple effect that can benefit your entire family. You might find that breaking the cycle of food obsession for your child is a powerful motivator.
Numerous organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, advise recognizing and respecting children’s signals of hunger and satiety. This fits with the “Intuitive Eating” model as well as Ellyn Satter’s Feeding Dynamics Model, in which the parent or caregiver chooses the food, provides regular meals and snacks in a pleasant atmosphere. The child decides how much to eat of the foods offered. When children are allowed total permission to eat the foods they like in the quantities their bodies need, not only does this help prevent cravings and overeating, but they tend to enjoy a wider variety of foods.
Other than disbanding the Clean Plate Club and not making broccoli a prerequisite for eating dessert, here are some immediate changes you can make to raise a healthy eater:
- Don’t comment once food is in front of your child. At that point, it’s their responsibility to decide how much or whether they eat.
- Offer nutritionally complete snacks in between meals to promote stable moods and blood sugar, which can help kids hone in on true hunger and fullness. Eating as a family at the table — without devices or other distraction — to make it easier to notice feelings of fullness as they arise.
- Avoid sending mixed messages. It doesn’t help if one parent avoids using food as a reward and stops labeling foods as “good” or “bad,” but the other parent doesn’t.
For more resources, the new fourth edition of “Intuitive Eating” by dietitians Evelyn Tribole and Elyse Resch has an expanded chapter on “Raising An Intuitive Eater,” and the website for the Ellyn Satter Institute (ellynsatterinstitute.org) has a wealth of information, too.