I’ve seen moms longingly look at other children who will eat vegetable after vegetable without complaints. They then look at their child, who is waging a war with a piece of broccoli. They sigh and wonder: will their child stop from becoming a picky eater? Well, diet and nutrition experts say take a look at your “feeding style,” or the attitudes and actions you use while feeding your child (it will closely mirror your parenting style) because it can have a direct effect on your child's 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,” said Jill Castle, a registered dietitian, childhood nutritionist, and a mom of four, to CNN.
“Our feeding style ends to mimic our own experiences as a child. They are deeply ingrained, and our 'go-to' method for feeding our own children,” Castle writes in her blog.
If you’ve ever told your child to “finish everything on your plate” or “take more bites,” then this might be your feeding style, which is often called a “parent-centered” approach. You don't let her eat freely and or follow her appetite because if you do they will probably not eat well.
Authoritarian feeders will limit their child’s access to non-nutritious food, and getting dessert will depend on the amount of food their child has consumed. There is a tendency to ignore the child’s preference and when he says “I’m full’ (because, again, you're worried it won't be enough or even near nutritious).
Children of authoritarian feeders may lose a sense of appetite and an ability to regulate internal hunger and fullness cues, which can lead to weight problems. They may overeat just to please their parents or eat less because they feel pressured.
Telling your child constantly to “take one more bite” may not sound so bad, but it sends a message that can influence your child’s ability to listen to his body.
It may also push the child to lose control when it comes to food, especially those he is not allowed to eat. “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,’” Castle said.
One study found that young girls whose mothers restricted their food intake were more likely to eat when they weren’t hungry, and various studies have shown that restricting children’s food intake is closely associated to their weight gain.
The opposite of authoritarian is this lax and loose style where more often than not, parents will give in to food requests or treats, even if they try to set limits at first. It makes children at risk of being overweight because they don’t know how to control themselves around food, and there are no boundaries when it comes to eating unhealthy options.
Permissive feeders manage their children by giving rewards — for example, “If you eat your vegetables, I’ll get you ice cream.” Doing this will tell the kids to put a hierarchy on their food preferences — sweets on top, vegetables at the bottom — again putting them at risk for unnecessary weight gain.
Castle admits that this style is less studied in literature, but as a practitioner, she’s seen it in action. Uninvolved feeders give less importance to food — they don’t do grocery shopping regularly, their pantry is not stocked or lacks variety, and meal planning is almost non-existent or put off at the last minute.
This lack of care may transfer to their kids. “Children who experience this feeding style may feel insecure about food and unsure about when they will have their next meal, or if they will like it, and whether it will be enough,” Castle writes in her blog.
When this happens, kids can become “a bit more focused on food and exhibit behaviors that lead to overeating,” said Castle.
Castle recommends parents to adopt this feeding style because “it promotes independent thinking and self-regulation within your child, but it also sets boundaries within which your child is expected to operate.”
An authoritative feeder thinks about each meal thoroughly but keeps a child’s feelings and preferences in mind. So, while the parent still dictates what meal to serve (vegetables) she can still offer the child reasonable choices (serve mashed potatoes or broccoli) and follow her child’s lead.
This feeding style can foster a child’s healthy relationship with eating. Take her along when you shop for groceries or allow her to eat only as much as she likes when you pack her lunch.
“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.
Despite adopting a positive feeding style, kids will be kids, and there will be times when they just won’t cooperate with you. At times like this, Castle reiterates they must at least come to the dining table whether they want to eat or not. “You can have a conversation about why they’re 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,” she said.
Castle also encourages parents to let consequences happen and make it a teachable moment. If a child becomes hungry because she refuses to eat dinner, try not to offer a snack. Instead, let her know she can have breakfast tomorrow morning.
Establishing healthy eating habits for your child is difficult, but as early as six months, you can already train your baby to develop food preferences and healthy eating habits. Don’t give up and extend your patience.