Eating Shiva

Eating Shiva (Photo credit: Mirror | imaging reality)

A few of my fellow mothers have talked to me about their children’s fussy eating habits. They have discussed their worries over their child’s weight gain and have told me that they can get quite stressed at meal times. All children have their good points and bad points but I have always felt lucky that my 3-year old son eats well. My mother-in-law can’t believe that one of his favourite foods is broccoli! So should I take the credit that he eats well? Is his lack of fussiness anything to do with my parenting style? I know that my friends who have fussy eaters and have older children who are not, say that they haven’t done anything different with their fussy eater. So what does the research say?

Research suggests that some children are naturally more picky eaters and can take longer to accept new foods than others. Sanders and colleagues (1993) compared fussy eaters with non-problem eaters by observing them at home during mealtimes. They found that the fussy eaters could be very difficult at mealtimes, for example, they would play with their food, complain about their food, refuse to eat their food, throw tantrums or regurgitate their food. However, they also found that parent of fussy eaters were more coercive in getting their children to eat food than parents of non-problem eaters.  It could be argued that parents of fussy eaters are inevitably going to pressurise their children to eat more in an effort to keep their children at a healthy weight. However, research suggests that pressurising children to eat more is counter-productive. It can lead to mealtimes becoming a battleground between children and parents. Sanders and colleagues (1993) found that the parents of the fussy eaters made significantly more negative comments at mealtimes.

Birch and colleagues (1984) found that pressurising a child to eat food by offering a reward can decrease liking for the food. Furthermore, if mealtimes are a negative experience, dislike for food increases. These findings are important because it is easy as a parent to use tactics to get your child to eat more. However, it appears feeding tactics can backfire and that it is better for parents to allow their child to completely self-regulate their food intake. Perhaps the only way parents can influence their children’s food consumption is by making mealtimes a positive experience and by enjoying healthy food in front of their children.  Galloway and colleagues (2005) found that parents who ate more fruit and vegetables themselves, had children who ate more fruit and vegetables. However, Fisher and colleagues (2002) found that parents who pressured their children to eat more fruit and vegetables, had children who actually consumed fewer fruit and vegetables. Galloway and Colleagues (2005) suggest that parents and children can influence each other in a cyclical way so that children’s initial eating style can lead to parent’s use of pressure to eat, which then leads the child to be less able to self-regulate their  food intake and so the parents add more pressure exacerbating the existing problems.

Picky eating can start early so what can parents do to stop it becoming a problem at an early stage? The research suggests that parents should take a relaxed approach. Toddlers are learning to regulate their food intake so although they may not eat much three days in a row, they will naturally make up these calories over the week. They can also find it difficult to eat at specific meal times so they should be allowed to snack on healthy food between meals. Toddlers should be encouraged to feed themselves and allowed to eat the amounts that they want so that they can learn to self-regulate their food intake. The advice is that if children do not want to eat a food, then they should be allowed not to. New food can take toddlers at least ten presentations before it is accepted. The fact that toddlers do not like to try new foods is natural and is an evolutionary mechanism designed to protect them from poisoning themselves or gastrointestinal problems (Birch, 1998). Parents just need to be patient about introducing new foods. Children will learn to eat different types of food as they observe their parents eating different types of food at mealtimes. This is why shared mealtimes is important.

My own question from looking at the research is how do you manage not restricting a child’s diet with concerns about obesity? Allen and Myers (2006) suggest that parents provide their children with an appropriate diet without being over controlling on what food their children eat. Children need to learn to self-regulate their energy intake and they actually do this better without parental intervention. However, they do recommend that parents of overweight toddlers be given weight management counselling to study the child’s food intake and activity level. They point out that children should not be encouraged to have a strict, low-calore, low-fat diet as this would not give children sufficient nutrients for growth. Fisher and Birch (1998) found that parents who restrict access to treats such as sweets, biscuits and chocolate actually have children who select and eat them more when given free access to them.

Having thought about this research, I have wondered whether I should be less controlling about my son’s food consumption. I do try to restrict my son’s chocolate intake although I have to admit without much success as he is always being given treats by grandparents and at people’s houses. I have also offered chocolate or sweets as a reward before, which I have realised I definitely shouldn’t be doing. I think the way forward is to allow him to eat as many treats as he wants when he is offered them, but to not have them at home too often. One thing that I think I have got right so far is that I have always been cautious about offering food when my son is upset as I do not want my son to associate food with comfort.

My book  ‘Psychology for Parents: Birth to teens’ is on sale as an e-book on Amazon and Smashwords.com.