What are the barriers that parents face with their fussy eaters that lead to anxiety rather than food freedom?
Dr Sarah Mundy explains that there are lots of evidence on what we need to do to support children to eat healthily.
She agrees on including them in the process from start to finish, helping them experience different textures and learning about food in a playful way, and giving them lots of chances to try an undesired food without giving up prematurely.
But, we may know what we need to do as parents but often it’s hard to put this into practice.
As she works mainly with children and parents together, she can see how influential parents are in shaping their children’s behaviour, often unconsciously.
Research suggests that the key to learning is through parents – for example, a parent’s fruit and vegetable consumption is the strongest predictor of a preschoolers intake of these foods.
Our behaviour and relationship with food as parents really matters – children whose parents indicated greater attempts to control their child’s diets reported higher intakes of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods.
In addition, those children whose parents indicated a greater use of food as a means to control their child’s behaviour reported higher levels of body dissatisfaction (Brown & Ogden, 2004).
Particularly in the pre school years, you are your primary model to your child – they develop expectations of the world based upon what they have experienced with you.
So, if you have a complex relationship with food yourself, or you find it hard to enjoy it and worry a great deal about eating, you probably will find it hard not to control how much your child eats. This will make it much harder for children to develop a positive relationship with food.
What we know is that restrictive feeding practices are associated with overeating and poorer self-regulation of energy intakes in preschool aged children – they eat depending upon how they are directed to.
For example, using food as a reward for good behaviour increases a child’s preferences of these foods (and we don’t often dangle carrots as an incentive).
Also, if we make too much of a positive fuss of children for eating healthily then this can actually result in them avoiding these foods.
Feeding behaviours in family is caught up with our general approach to parenting.
The more authoritarian we are (high demands, pressure to eat, coercion, greater restrictions, punishments, alongside low responsiveness to a child’s needs or behaviours) relates to fewer fruits and vegetables being eaten by children.
Whereas an authoritative approach (strategy that seeks to set reasonable rules and guidelines that are in the best interests of the child, responsive to child’s needs.
The rules provide structure while still allowing room for the child to explore, test, and begin the process of learning what constitutes acceptable behaviour).
Not surprisingly this is associated with eating more healthy foods. (see Savage for a good review of parental influence on eating behaviour, 2007 – from conception to adolescence).
It’s really helpful to think about how eating was managed in our home when we were children, and what we have taken from that – and how helpful it is.
As parents, we can also make the mistakes that we know best – in fact a child has an innate ability to self-regulate their energy intake BUT, this is affected by our approach.
For example, if we offer large portions, use controlling or restricting practices or put too much pressure on this can undermine the self-regulation.
Parents need to think about whether are pressurising their children too much, whether their expectations are too high. If we feel too over controlled it is harder to recognise feelings of hunger and fullness.
It’s important to remember that it’s innate for children to reject bitter foods, and will take time to change learn a new association with it.
How we react (not just verbally – our non-verbal communication has to be congruent with what we are saying) will shape their eating habits.
What the research is saying is that we need to respond to children’s hunger and satiety cues – but this is a departure from traditional feeding practices which focus on promoting children’s food intake whether they are hungry or not!