One rite of passage that most parents hate to experience is the picky eating phases their kids go through. It can be stressful not only to parents, but to kids as well.
A recent study in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior discovered that worry over picky eating may prompt moms and dads to use non-responsive feeding practices like pressuring or rewarding for eating.
Lead author, Dr. Holly Harris of the Centre for Children’s Health Research, Queensland University of Technology, Brisbane Australia states, “These practices can reinforce fussy eating, increase preferences for unhealthy foods and lead to excessive weight gain.”
Finding out why parents use unproductive behaviors to deal with picky eaters is important in order to learn to teach healthy feeding practices. The research in this particular study included over 200 mothers and fathers with children aged 2-5 years from socio-economically disadvantaged communities in Queensland, Australia. Lower-income families often have higher levels of picky eating and more use of non-responsive feeding practices, but little is understood about what situations encourage the behavior.
In the study, parents were asked about themselves as well as their perceived role in feeding as well as their child’s mood. In addition, parents recorded the frequency of picky eating behavior and feeding habits. Questions included, “When your child refuses food they usually eat, do you insist your child eat it?” and “When your child refuses food they usually eat, do you encourage eating by offering a reward other than food?” Finally, parents responded about how often they were concerned about their child’s picky eating, their child not consuming a varied or balanced diet, and how much their child ate.
Researchers noted that mothers reported higher levels of concern, though both moms and dads accounts of picky eating were consistent. According to research, gender assumptions put more responsibility for feeding and a child’s diet on mothers. Moms are more sensitive to children’s verbal and nonverbal cues and are typically more distressed by crying, tantrums, and gagging when a child refuses food. Feeding also has an important emotional component for moms that may add to their use of non-responsive feeding behaviors out of worry for their child’s wellbeing.
Dads more often used persuasive feeding behaviors, though their practices were not born out of parental concern, said Dr. Harris. "A possible explanation may be the fathers' focus on practical matters such as ending mealtime after a long day at work. Acknowledging and addressing the underlying causes for non-responsive feeding practices used by both parents may improve responses to fussy eating."
Dr. Harris advises that when healthcare professionals educate parents about feeding picky eaters, they should provide reassurance, instruction, and different behavioral methods to improve children’s exposure to a wide array of nutritious foods.
Here are some tips for parents dealing with fussy foodies:*
- Present the same foods over and over in a non-pressured, non-judgmental way.
- Eat the same food along with your child to model behavior instead of just feeding them.
- Serve meals in a relaxing family environment.
- Parents control the what, when, and where of meal time. Children control how much is eaten.
- Prepare foods you like without preparing separate meals for your child.
- Provide each eater with at least one food they enjoy. This can include milk, fruit, or other foods.
- Include familiar as well as unfamiliar foods on the plate.
- Include high-fat foods for calories and growth (peanut butter, butter on bread, etc).
- Avoid pressuring your child to eat.
- Be patient as they learn new tastes such as bitter or savory.
- Parents should respect their own food preferences and serve foods they enjoy.
- Do not reward children for eating dinner with dessert. Serve dessert as part of a meal, not as a “treat.”
By Lisa Andrews, MEd, RD, LD
Holly A. Harris, Elena Jansen, Kimberley M. Mallan, Lynne Daniels, Karen Thorpe. Concern Explaining Nonresponsive Feeding: A Study of Mothers’ and Fathers’ Response to Their Child's Fussy Eating. Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2018; 50 (8): 757 DOI: 10.1016/j.jneb.2018.05.021
*According to Registered Dietitian Ellyn Satter
Stephanie Ronco has been editing for Food and Health Communications since 2011. She graduated from Colorado College magna cum laude with distinction in Comparative Literature. She was elected a member of Phi Beta Kappa in 2008.