Last week I posted this image to my facebook page and it got more shares than anything else I’ve ever posted. And most of those shares were from other feeding professionals. This got me to thinking: Why is this resonating so much with people working with picky eaters?
The answer, I think, is this: We all understand that the there is a fundamental contradiction at the heart of the feeding relationship – as parents, we are driven to pressure our picky eaters to eat but that pressure actually brings about the opposite result and does damage to a child’s long-term relationship with food. So much of the work of professionals in this field is about helping parents to understand this; not an easy task because it’s counter-intuitive and goes against some very deeply felt instincts.
For More Tips On Picky Eaters, Check Out:
- Why Deconstructed Meals Can Make Mealtime Less Stressful
- Don’t Give Up On Your Kids Eating Vegetables
- Getting Picky Eaters to Try New Foods Using the Rotation Rule
Why We Pressure Children To Eat
We want our kids to eat for the best reasons – maybe we are anxious about their weight, growth, and nutrient intake*. Maybe we want them to share our love of food and enjoy the tasty meal we’ve prepared for them. Maybe we resent all the time, effort and cost that goes into a healthy meal, being wasted if it ends up going in the trash. All of this is completely understandable.
Often pressure is not conscious. The following are examples of ways in which we pressure picky eaters to eat. Many parents I work with say that they recognize these but had not seen them as pressure, more ‘gentle encouragement’. Here are the five most common unconscious pressure tactics that I see :
- Comparing a child’s eating to a sibling or friend
- Enticing them with a tasty morsel
- Bribing them with a promise of a reward if they eat ‘just one more bite’
- Talking up the health benefits of ‘eating all your greens’
- Pleading with them to try it ‘for me…’
And then there is conscious pressure. This is when parents take a moral stance on eating and have decided that their children ‘should’ eat what they have been served and that it is their role as a parent to enforce that. Much of this attitude is understandable in the light of how our generation was raised; perhaps resources were scarce and it just feels plain wrong to waste food. Perhaps it’s part of a ‘never did me any harm’ attitude to parenting.
Many parents, like me, were brought up in an era when cleaning your plate was the gold standard. Our parents were post-war babies who may have had to contend with rationing and real hardship. This stuff trickles down the generations; when I assess a new client, I sometimes even talk about grandparents’ relationship with food because it is all relevant and it all contributes to our expectations about our children’s eating.
What’s Wrong With A Little Pressure?
First, research tells us that if there is conflict during mealtimes and if children experience negativity, their eating will get worse. In other words, the nicer the atmosphere at the table, the better children’s eating will be. It is very hard to apply even the gentlest of pressure and not create tension at the table. The simple act of focusing on how or what your child is eating increases their stress levels. Another interesting study found that the more controlling the parents, the more likely picky eaters were to reject their food. If you leave your child to make their own eating decisions, they don’t need to use food as a means of asserting their autonomy.
An investigation of parenting style and childhood obesity found that when parents were very rigid and had a more authoritarian parenting style, children were far more likely to be obese. This last point is relevant because obesity and picky eating, while different phenomena, have much in common. Self-regulation (among other things) is a concept that connects them: the mechanism whereby children learn to listen to their body and eat because of their natural appetite rather than because of external factors.
When children are good at self-regulating, they are less likely to be obese and less likely to be picky. This is because the healthy relationship with food that we all want for our children is founded upon children learning to eat in response to their physical cues. When they are eating (or not eating) for other reasons, such as feeling low or engaging in power-play with a parent, things become dysfunctional.
Ellyn Satter, with her Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DoR) model, understood profoundly how important self-regulation is. Once we put ANY pressure on our children to eat, we are taking them a step away from self-regulation, a step away from eating because their body dictates it and step closer to a negative relationship with food.
One thing Satter’s DoR and my approach (EAF) have in common is an understanding that we need to trust our children to know what their bodies need. If we restrict ourselves to making sure that we provide healthy and appropriate meals, we need to leave it to our children to decide what and how much they eat of what we have prepared. It is not our job to pressure them to eat and the more we try to do this, the worse their eating will become.
* If you are worried about your child’s weight, growth or health, please get them checked out by a health professional.