Raising a healthy eater is a full-time job isn’t it?
If you’re a parent, you are well aware of juggling your family’s activities from football to Rainbows, finding time for homework, doctor’s appointments, play dates, sleep overs and much more. But an important part of your parenting job description – is being the gatekeeper of your child’s diet, and with rising concern about childhood obesity I think it’s worth ‘Pausing to Ponder’ your parental ‘feeding style’ to see how it may be impacting on your child’s health.
But did you know that your own “feeding style,” 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 therefore their health?
There is evidence in 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, which makes sense as the way we talk about food, act around food and enjoy food will of course be passing down to our children both consciously and unconsciously. In the same way as their attitude to their body image comes initially from how we speak of our bodies and those of others too.
It’s actually quite obvious, when you think about it, that as parents, we come to the table with our own history and feeding style passed down to us from our parents.
There are four known feeding styles that have been written about in current scientific literature, but three of them may negatively influence a child’s emotional and physical health.
Authoritarian feeding style
The first is an authoritarian or controlling feeding style. Here, you may be inclined to push your child to take more bites of food or ask your child to “clean their plate.” You might also restrict your child’s access to non-healthy, non-nutritious foods.
With this parent-centred eating style, rules about eating are directed by you, and without considering your child’s point of view or opinion, rather than self-directed by your child and their appetite.
I grew up with the ‘Finish your plate. There are children starving in the world.’ attitude as my parents had been through the 2nd World War with rationing, so I found it really difficult not to finish off what my kids left on their plates when they were little – leading to some weight gain until I changed my thinking.
If you have an authoritarian style you may find that your child may finish their plate even though they are full, in an effort to please you. The downside to this is that when a child’s appetite is ignored, they may lose the ability to regulate their own internal hunger and fullness cues, and this can cause weight problems.
The pressure to eat can be subtle. Taken out of context from the bigger picture ‘take two more bites’ doesn’t sound horrible or detrimental … but over time, that message can influence a child’s ability to recognise their own hunger and fullness cues and ability to trust their own bodies. If a child is full, they are full, so over riding that message is overeating.
Often Authoritarian Style Mums & Dads ban sweets, treats and sugary snacks – and banning anything makes it more interesting, compelling and exciting which can lead to binge eating these foods when the child has more autonomy.
I remember a girl in my class who was banned from eating sweets & crisps when we were 6 but when she hit 14 she just binged on sweets and her bedroom was full of sweet wrappers and crisp packets☹
Moderation in everything is the best way forward.
Permissive and neglectful feeding styles.
A permissive or “indulgent” feeding style is one in which a parent has slack reins on what a child eats and the access a child has to food.
This is where a parent may say, ‘Of course, you want biscuits, no problem.’ There are few boundaries in the kitchen or around food – healthy or otherwise, and a child can help themselves to whatever they want, whenever they want; there are no clear guidelines given to eating. There are no limits, no boundaries and no healthy eating advice.
These parents have less control and boundary-setting around sweets and treats & are a little hesitant & reluctant to say ‘no’ to their kids around food or indeed generally. They seem to have less parenting control over feeding and eating. 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.
Using food as a reward
Another issue that may pop up with this rather indulgent feeding style is rewarding, where a parent attaches a reward to eating or achievement. For example, “if you eat your carrots, you can have dessert” or “you got Student of The Week, so let’s get chocolate.”
But using this way of rewarding success, or compliant behaviour, can cause children to change their attitudes to food and it puts them at an increased risk towards weight gain. Studies show that these children build a strong preference for the reward food, like sweets or fizzy drinks, while the healthy food, for example broccoli, or apples and healthier options are seen as less ‘exciting’ so less desirable.
The feeding style of being rather neglectful or “uninvolved” is where food and shopping 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 behaviours that lead to overeating.
Authoritative style: ‘Love with limits’
The feeding style associated with the most positive health outcomes is known as an authoritative feeding style, or what I like to call “love with limits” style. This offers children boundaries and structure but still considers their feelings and preferences.
It’s about giving limited choices.
So, I used to say to Will ‘Would you like peas or broccoli for dinner?’
I was still in control of the choices, but Will felt he some say in the matter & liked the feeling of being involved in some way.
I also used to get Will & Molly involved in shopping with me – weighing out the bananas, looking for the green beans and helping me carry the strawberries.
I also got them involved in learning to chop and cook with me too. Not every day as life is busy, but the more I talked and taught them, the more they enjoyed dinner time – where we talked about our days not just with me nagging them to eat with their knife and fork properly ALL the time or eat their carrots.
As they got older I used to ask the kids to pick out a new recipe to try that we could cook together as I wanted to encourage a healthy relationship with eating & with food.
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.
It’s about feeling relaxed around food in my opinion.
I also made sure we ate together regularly to talk, laugh, chat and be involved in each other’s lives. I saw food as a sociable event & that has carried on now they are 26 and 24 and cook for me!
Research has shown that an authoritative parenting style in general (not just with feeding), in which you maintain clear boundaries and rules but are also emotionally connected and engaged with your children, 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 children make better choices on their own, and they are more accepting of new foods. When you take away the pressure, kids become a bit more adventurous and have a better relationship with food. They’re not going to go a birthday party and have 5 slices of birthday cake!
What if your child doesn’t actually want to eat & isn’t hungry?
I believe that your child should come to the table, whether they feel hungry or want to eat or not. They should be expected to join the family, as it’s a way of connecting and being together. Have a relaxed, not angry chat about why they are not hungry, but I think as parents we all need do a better job of respecting our children’s appetites and respecting that they are individuals. Some days I’m hungrier than others.
If it’s consistent occurrence maybe shift your meal time back half an hour to increase their feelings of hunger or drop that afternoon snack.
Let consequences happen, and ‘Talk & Teach’ your child that if they don’t eat their dinner there’s no crisps or snacks later instead.
Build healthy habits.
Research has shown that there are some basic strategies to help your child develop a healthy relationship with food.
- Plan meals. A child needs structure and a routine, and part of that is providing meals and snacks at regular times and determining what their plate is going to look like. Check out food portion sizes here.
- Don’t fear sweets. Sweets have been so demonised that it’s almost natural for children to covet them and overreact around them. Find a balance between the odd treat. Don’t ban anything. As long as the majority of your child’s diet consists of nutritious foods, there is room for the odd packet of sweets, biscuits, cake or the odd fizzy drink or bag of chips. Don’t talk about “forbidden food.”
- Talk & Teach your kids about healthy choices and help them learn to make them on their own.
- Be a good role model. Demonstrating balance in your own eating will model to your child over time how to handle food. 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.
- Eat together. It builds rapport, connection, family bonding time and memories that will last a lifetime. Encourage the whole family to eat the same meal, even if you need to allow for a little bit of flexibility. Molly didn’t like cooked carrots but enjoyed raw ones so we adapted her plate.
- Make mealtimes enjoyable, regular and have the intention to come together each day to connect.
- 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 you unconsciously think ‘Oh my son is OK, but my daughter is prone to putting on weight – I’ll have to really watch her,’ psychologically, that can really send the message to that child that they aren’t not good enough.
Get active, get connected and enjoy mealtimes making memories & pause to ponder the unconscious messages that you are sending to your kids this week and let me know how you get on.
I have created a “A Food Diary” to help you relax as you keep a record of the food your child is eating over the course of a whole week!
This daily diary will help you to plan your child’s diet, ensuring that they get just the right amount of proteins, vitamins, and carbohydrates that are so important.
Why not download my free “Food Diary”
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