Some new advice allows us to do less, not more. Turns out, new research finds that controlling parenting styles may hinder children’s healthy eating habits. New data published in April 2013, finds that not only are controlling, food-related, parenting practices common, they aren’t helping teens maintain a healthy weight. In the Pediatrics study, researchers found that parents often encourage teens of healthy weight to finish all their food, providing pressure to eat. While parents to overweight teens ban some foods and encourage restriction. Neither practice is proven to improve teens’ habits or improve their health.
We really want our children to self-regulate their energy intake (food) and mounting evidence reports that controlling habits hinder this essential skill.
Four Golden Eating Rules
- Divide responsibilities. Parents have the job of purchasing and serving healthy food. Infants, children, and teens have to choose what to eat and how much of the food that’s offered. The division of responsibilities allows you less of a role. Every parent knows that you can’t force a child to eat–the best thing to do is stop trying. Let mealtime be about feeding your body. If they don’t eat much, wait until the next meal to offer food. Children eat for themselves, not for their parents. Turn the TV off and let children feel their fullness when it arrives.
- Eat when your body is hungry. Stop when your body is full. Infants do this naturally when breastfeeding and when starting solids. We have to do our best to maintain that natural habit throughout toddler to teen years. This skill of responding to natural hunger and normal cues of satiety can be a huge asset for children for their entire lives. Do your best to stop engineering how much your children eat and let them learn to feel necessities.
- Don’t make children Clean The Plate. There’s absolutely no reason to provide pressure to eat for children with normal development and normal health. Don’t reward children for finishing their dinner with more food (ie dessert) as children will often eat past their fullness. New research also finds that using smaller plates can also help control portion sizes and ultimately will reduce number of calories eaten. The benefit: it will also trigger less need to ask them to clean their plate, they’ll do so naturally on a smaller plate.
- Eat together. The most potent education we give our children comes from our modeling habits and behaviors we think are most important. Eat together with children at meals from infancy until they leave home. Make a goal for at least one meal a day, and it doesn’t need to be dinner. That being said, I love the book The Family Dinner by Laurie David. There’s no reason to cook special food for your children. Involve them in any part of meal prep you can, eat the same foods, and share your love of eating.
Peter Bryan says
It’s hard to resist the urge to comment on how much ones children should eat; the advice in this post is spot on. Parents just need to concern themselves with being the providers of healthy nutritious meals. Kids have plenty of chances in adulthood of developing neurosis without us helping them.
Melanie Silverman says
PERFECTION! Thank you for this post. Parents need to surrender to the fact that kids know when they are hungry and when they are full. Trust them. Parental energy should be poured into meal planning and preparation and that is it.
Margaret Mills says
We do our best to follow these guidelines with our son (3.5 years old), and in general it works pretty well. Dessert, though, is a big issue for us. When he gets candy (Halloween, Valentine’s Day, birthday parties) we put it in a jar on top of the fridge (to keep it away from the dog). Our current rule is that if he eats everything on his plate for dinner, he can have one piece of candy. (Fruit is always available as long as he eats some of his meals.) I don’t like rewarding him for eating if he isn’t full, but I also don’t want him to give up on dinner before he’s full so he can eat candy. And he’s a smart kid, and very aware of patterns and rules, so we need some way to be consistent and reasonable with when he can have that candy. (With this restriction, he only sometimes asks for the candy. If it were always available, he would ask for it every day.) How do you thread that needle?
Jessica Miller says
Margaret: great question. Two ideas to try:
-Occasionally serve one portion of candy or whatever dessert to each family member with a meal, and everyone is allowed to eat their serving whenever in the meal they want: before, in the middle, or after. No seconds. Serving sweets only if the rest of the meal is finished to the adults’ satisfaction puts the “forbidden food” up on a pedestal as desirable. Letting your son choose when to eat his portion takes the emphasis off.
-Occasionally have a snack of candy and a couple of other foods, allowing him to eat however much he wants. Once that snacktime is over, the candy goes back up on top of the fridge. That way the child feels like they’re getting their fill and again, you don’t have the problem that restricting it makes it extra-desirable.
See this link for more elaboration: https://www.ellynsatter.com/using-forbidden-food-i-51.html
We do the second thing with juice in our house; we only have it once a week or so and let our almost-three-year-old have as many refills as he wants during that meal (usually a weekend breakfast). Then no more juice until the next time. My son likes juice but rarely asks for it; when he does, we just say, “We’re not having juice today, do you want water or milk?” and he’s fine with that.
I highly, highly recommend the book “How To Get Your Kid to Eat . . . But Not Too Much” by Ellyn Satter. It’s an elaboration of the division of responsibility from infants to teens and is just spot-on.
Wendy Sue Swanson, MD, MBE says
Thanks, Jessica. I like what you said and I also love Ellyn Satter’s book!
Dear Doctor, my child is 7 y.o now. He is at black belt Takwondo , Core team swimmer twice weekly, Seasonal soccer player. He eats fruits and vegetables now. He has been always going to Summer Camp for years, Maths group for years and has been playing piano since he was 4 . He only drinks water. There is no cookies, no chips, no candies at home. His mom cooks Wholefoods every single days…After he was older than 2 y.o, his weight percentile has been 85th, 85th minus, 90th, 91st, 93rd…Was it possible that he was infected with Obesity – causing virus? Thank you, Doctor.