Most parents I know would feed their children a healthier diet filled with fruits and vegetables if they thought their children would eat them. But they don't. And since parents often have loftier goals than feeding their kids a healthy diet—such as keeping their kids alive—it's hard for them to keep serving food that gets rejected. Don't laugh. It's true. Very few parents actually want to feed their kids the pizza-pasta-hot dog diet. What they want is for their kids never to be hungry.
Or they want to avoid conflict. Prevent a meltdown. Buy some quiet time. Make their kids happy.
In my experience, parents know what their kids should eat. It's getting kids to eat it when it is served that causes parents so many problems.
Sadly, the strategies parents use to make feeding their kids easier, quicker or less contentious, typically backfire. For instance, when parents over-use a handful of foods because they know their kids will eat them, parents are unwittingly teaching their kids to resist new foods. And when they pressure their kids to eat vegetables, they are unintentionally teaching their kids to prefer other kinds foods.
I've long said that the key to teaching kids to eat right is to stop focusing on food. Instead, parents need to focus more on how they interact with their children around food. A study published in the online issue of Pediatrics this week supports my point.1
Parenting skills, it turns out, influence how well kids eat. Furthermore, improving someone's parenting skills can turn their children's health around. In this study, youths whose parents participated in a series of skills-building workshops when the kids were 4 years old had lower BMI scores and improved health behaviors (better eating habits, more physical activity, less sedentary screen time) as they approached adolescence.
The good news is that the kinds of parenting skills you need to produce healthy eaters aren't anything special. These skills-building workshops didn't even address nutrition, activity or weight; they were designed to reduce behavioral problems. What the researchers discovered, though, is that teaching parents to be responsive and nurturing, to set limits, enforce discipline and to promote positive behavior is a strategy that pays off in many different ways. Including eating.
So much of our public dialogue about child obesity centers on nutrition education. But—and maybe you've never thought about this—teaching parents about nutrition simply educates them about food. As this study shows, effective parenting matters too. It may even matter more. In other words, you can't just plunk down a plate of peas and hope for the best.
Other research has corroborated the importance of parenting skills for determining how well children eat. For instance, there is a growing body of evidence showing that when parents feed their children to calm them down, help them get over a boo-boo, or otherwise use food as a parenting tool, kids develop poor eating habits.
In one study, researchers found that children were more likely to turn to food when they were upset, and to eat when they weren't hungry, if their mothers used food as a strategy for soothing them.2
In another study, researchers found that mothers who reported using food to soothe their infants had heavier children.3 They had even heavier children if the mothers also described their infants as having a negative temperament.
Why? Children with negative temperaments can be difficult to parent. And, as it turns out, many of the mothers who turned to food to soothe their infants also felt like they were ineffective parents, particularly with regard to their ability to soothe their children. In this context, food can be an effective tool. But at what cost?
In yet another study (OK, enough with the studies already!) researchers found that parents who felt ineffective didn't raise kids who ate enough fruits and vegetables.4
And so, now we're back to the beginning: Parenting skills are paramount. Without them, knowledge about nutrition doesn't add up to, well, to a hill of beans. (Or to a situation where toddlers gobble up the greens.) You can't feed your way out of a picky-eating problem, but you can teach your children the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy eating instead.
1 Brotman, L. M., S. Dawson-McClure, K. Y. Huang, R. Theise, D. Kamboukos, J. Wang, E. Petkova, and G. Ogedegbe. 2012. "Early Childhood Family Intervention and Long-term Obesity Prevention Among High-risk Minority Youth." Pediatrics. Published online February 6, 2012. Accessed at http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2012/02/01/peds.2011-1568d.abstract on February 9, 2012.
2 Blissett, J., E. Haycraft, and C. Farrow. 2010. "Inducing Preschool Children's Emotional Eating: Relations With Parental Feeding Practices." American Journal of Clinical Nutrition 92: 359-65. Musher-Eizenman, D. and S. Holub. 2007. "Comprehensive Feeding Practices Questionnaire: Validation of a New Measure of Parental Feeding Practices." Journal of Pediatric Psychology 32(8): 96--972.
3 Stifter, C. A., S. Anzman-Frasca, L. L. Birch, and K. Voegtline. 2011. "Parent Use of Food to Soothe Infant/Toddler Distress and Child Weight Status. An Exploratory Study." Appetite 57: 693-99.
4 Horodynski, M. A., M. Stommel, H. Brophy-Herb, Y. Xie, and L. Weatherspoon. 2010. "Low-Income African American and Non-Hispanic White Mothers' Self-Efficacy, "Picky Eater" Perception, and Toddler Fruit and Vegetable Consumption." Public Health Nursing 27(5): 408-17.
© 2012 Dina Rose, PhD author of the blog It's Not About Nutrition. Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.