Sometimes magic is just what one needs when dealing with a toddler (or two) and from time to time we all find (or stumble upon) something that works just like a charm. In most cases it entails not engaging in a head-to-head battle with our little ones. Unfortunately it is all too common for parents, especially when tired or stressed, to start confusing educating with disciplining and parenting with totalitarianism. We all have an ego which we can fall prey to it, sadly even when dealing with the most precious little people in the world. In some cases though employing a more authoritarian style of ‘do as I say!’ may seem the right thing to do, or even the only thing one can do. Food battles often times fall into this category. But no fear, there is a simple solution.
Next time you are faced with a child uninterested in mealtime try telling him/her “You don’t have to eat”. This is exactly what we do and it’s also the advice from Maryann Jacobsen, registered dietician and mother of two, in her article for parents who are struggling to get their children to come to the dinner table (see below for the link). From our own professional experience we know how effective this is and also that many will feel this could not possibly be adopted in their case because… add excuse here and here and here. But in actual fact there is also plenty of sound scientific evidence to convince you to try it.
The first part is then: avoid turning food into the focus of the argument. In deed pressure to eat specific foods, as well as to eat in general leads to a number of undesirable outcomes with potential repercussions to later life. The article quotes a study by Bante et al (2008) whereby pressure to eat healthy foods led to an immediate increase in their consumption, coupled however by a reduced likelihood of preferring the food. But there are many more studies (even longitudinal ones: the most realistic way to do this kind of research) confirming the way pressure and excessive control backfires in this department. In fact paradoxically picky eating as well as lower BMI have been repeatedly predicted by a pressuring parenting style with respect to food (Webber et al 2010, Gregory et al 2010, Brown & Lee 2011, Jansen et al 2012 , Rodgers et al 2013). This has also been associated with lower fruit intake (Rodenburg et al 2012) and a lower enjoyment of food (Webber et al 2010). In short when we make a big deal about food, food becomes a big deal to swallow… so, just don’t!
There is more to this though, namely the realization that the dinner table is not just for eating. It is a time to spend with the family, to share what happened during the day, any upcoming events, achievements (and with children there are often many when we look close enough) discuss issues or even just learn the names of new dishes. As I mentioned earlier this is all backed up by studies, and the benefit of family meals are not ‘just’ to uphold ‘traditional family values’ but there are health benefits as well. An increased fruit and vegetable intake as well as fewer issues with weight control and better psychosocial health have all been associated with sharing food with the family (Berge et al 2010). Therefore even if everyone should be free to decide if they are hungry or not, it is important that the whole family sits at the table until all have finished… Not least because during table interactions, it is unlikely that kids won’t eat something.
What they take and how much of it should be up to them as well, as long as it is from what is on the table. Completely separate meals for the children are not advisable (even though you might want to watch the salt and tone down at least a few portion of the vindaloo curry with the extra helping of molten lava), not to mention the use of any of the so called ‘children foods’. Leaving aside the processing that goes into them and their consequent lack of nutrients, they are just not conducive to trying new foods (real foods that is), which is an important part of food exploration for young children. Obviously when new foods are involved much support and encouragement (not pressure) should be provided, but generally once they realize that whatever they don’t like they can leave, trying new things can even become a bit of a game. But an important factor here is the example set by parents. Studies show that a greater variety of fruit and veg in the mother’s diet led to a similarly varied intake of fruit and veg in daughters (Galloway et al 2005). Furthermore seeing parents eat something new or a previously disliked food, can have a deep impact on children’s acceptance of new foods (Kral & Rauh 2010).
To read Maryann Jacobsen’s article: ‘End Mealtime Battles Forever With These 5 Simple Words’ published on the Huffington Post click here
Below the links to the studies mentioned in the article
- Webber et al (2010). Associations between children’s appetitive traits and maternal feeding practices. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010 Nov; 110(11):1718-22
- Gregory et al (2010). Pressure to eat and restriction are associated with child eating behaviours and maternal concern about child weight, but not child body mass index, in 2- to 4-year-old children. Appetite, 2010 Jun;54(3):550-6
- Brown & Lee (2011). Maternal child-feeding style during the weaning period: association with infant weight and maternal eating style. Eating Behaviour, 2011 Apr;12(2):108-11
- Jansen et al (2012). Children’s eating behavior, feeding practices of parents and weight problems in early childhood: results from the population-based Generation R Study. The international Journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 2012 Oct 30;9:130.
- Rodgers et al (2013). Maternal feeding practices predict weight gain and obesogenic eating behaviors in young children: a prospective study. The international Journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 2013 Feb 18;10:24
- Rodenburg et al (2012). Associations of Children’s Appetitive Traits with Weight and Dietary Behaviours in the Context of General Parenting. PLoS One. 2012; 7(12): e50642
- Berge et al (2010). Parenting Style and Family Meals: Cross-Sectional and 5-year Longitudinal Associations. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010 July; 110(7): 1036-1042
- Galloway et al (2005). Parental pressure, dietary patterns, and weight status among girls who are “picky eaters”. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2005 Apr;105(4):541-8.
- Kral & Rauh (2010) Eating behaviors of children in the context of their family environment. Physiology & Behaviour, 2010 July 14; 100(5):567-573