(BlackDoctor.org) — Good news for parents of fussy eaters: it’s probably not your fault.
In an effort to find out what drives unhealthy eating patterns among children, researchers compared children’s eating behaviors to their mothers’ reactions to said behaviors and found that parents are usually responding to (not the cause of) fussy eating or overindulgence.
As part of the study, questionnaire data was collected from 244 parents of children between the ages of 7 and 9. The moms filled out one survey related to their children’s eating behaviors. The authors found that what the mothers usually wanted from their children yielded the exact opposite result: Parents who put more pressure on their children to eat were more likely to report having children who felt full before the end of a meal, ate slowly, were “fussy” eaters, or didn’t enjoy food very much in general. On the other hand, parents who were more restrictive of what their children ate were more likely to have kids who they reported would eat too much if allowed.
While the study didn’t rule out the possibility that kids are simply eating a certain way just to assert a little control over the dinner table, Laura Webber of the Health Behaviour Research Center at University College and lead author of the study, says that most likely the child’s behavior is driving, not responding to, their parent’s reaction. Eating behaviors are usually inherited, Webber says, so chances are, a fussy eater isn’t being fussy simply to upset their parents. She adds, “it is important that parents do not blame themselves for their children’s eating behaviors.”
How To Improve Eating Behavior
So what is the appropriate reaction for parents with fussy eaters or overindulgers? Here are a few tips:
1. Maintain control at the dinner table.
“Parentss should take control and attempt to encourage their children to try new foods and eat healthily, rather than giving in to their demands,” says Webber.
2. Limit mealtime drama.
When parents label their kids “picky” or “fussy,” the children pick up on that, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, registered dietician with the American Dietetic Association. “Then it becomes a license to not try new foods,” she says. “If you’re the parent of a fussy eater, try to serve food in a very matter-of-fact way,” she adds. If the child refuses it, just take it away and try serving it again in a few days. Don’t beg and plead with them to try it.
3. Feed children when they’re hungry.
“The number one tip I tell parents is to make sure your kids are hungry when serving a meal, snack, or whenever you want them to eat nutritious foods,” Krieger says. “It seems like common sense, but it’s amazing what kids will try when they’re hungry.” It also helps teach children to eat when their actually hungry, so they’re less likely to eat constantly, or when they’re bored.
By the same token, she says, watch your child’s liquid intake. “Anything that offers calories without a lot of nutrition (like lemonades) can fill up tummies,” she says. Keep children from drinking any kind of caloric beverage two hours before a meal. If necessary, make the kitchen off limits during certain times of the day so children won’t fill up on either drinks or snacks before meals.
4. Plan after-dinner activities.
Boredom is a powerful motivator for overeaters, says Krieger. “If you notice that a child wants to eat an hour after dinner, when it isn’t physically possible that they’re hungry, they could be signaling that they need something to do,” she says. So instead of arguing with your child about the fact that they just ate, take them outside for a walk, or have some other activity lined up as a distraction.
5. Let your child participate.
“Encourage children to help make their lunch or dinner,” Krieger says. “Kids are more likely to try and eat more fruits and vegetables when they make them themselves.” Also, planning meals together helps teach kids about portion control. When you do sit down at the table, make it a pleasant experience, she says. Don’t fight over how much a child is or isn’t eating, because it may then turn into a power struggle.
Most importantly, be a good role model. Parents who eat healthy foods will set good examples for their children.