Doctor’s ℞: Think You Know the Top Feeding Mistakes Nearly All Parents Make?

by Jennifer A. Gardner, M.D. on June 17, 2013

Part 2 of 3:  Top Feeding Mistakes Parents Make Feeding Kids and How to Avoid Them

In Part 1, we reviewed a proven feeding system for children that, when followed properly, avoids nearly all the common feeding mistakes parents make and promotes bringing structure and order to feeds.

In Part 2, you will now learn the two biggest feeding mistakes almost all parents make at one point and why they backfire. You will also learn what normal feeding patterns are in childhood and what your child was born to do—eat a variety of foods in healthy amounts to support growth and development and stay energized.

In Part 3, we offer fool proof tips for feeding children without stress or fighting
 

Can you guess the two biggest mistakes parents make when feeding kids?

In a nutshell, pressuring and restricting. I think of these as the “food pushers” and “food police.”

A recent study in Pediatrics suggests that parents who deny their children certain foods or parents who pressure kids to eat everything on their plate may be adversely affecting the way their children will eat as adults. Although this study was done in teenagers, the conclusions likely hold true for children of all ages.

Researchers found that parents who restricted foods were more likely to have obese or overweight children. Why? When a parent places restriction on a particular food item, the child becomes more interested in consuming that item and will often overeat that food when given the opportunity. Instead, parents should be encouraged to allow their children to eat all foods in moderation.

Researchers also found that parents who pressured kids to eat everything on their plate generally had children of normal weight. BUT, these kids do not learn to self regulate, and loose the ability to listen to the body’s internal satiety meter (internal hunger cues). This explains why they most often become overweight adults.

The study interestingly found that men were more likely than women to use "pressure-to-eat" behaviors, and that adolescent boys were more likely to be pressured to eat than girls.


Why does pressuring children to eat always backfire?
 

Kids want control in their life (let’s face it, kids have very little control over their life), and eating is one of the few areas where they can exert it!
 
Pressuring is perceived by children as a personal affront to their autonomy, and akin to bullying—no surprise—this results in the exact opposite behavior that you are trying to encourage.

 

If it helps, remind yourself that nearly all children are picky eaters at one point or another, yet most adults are not! 
  • Remember, trying to get children to eat more than they want makes kids eat less.
  • Trying to get children to eat less than they want makes them eat more.
  • And trying to get children to eat certain foods makes them avoid these foods, not try them.
Pressure can be positive:

Praising, cheering, reminding, bribing or rewarding, applauding, or pointedly commenting about how great food is at a meal

Pressure can be negative:

Restricting amounts or types of food, punishing, guilting, shaming, criticizing, threatening, withholding sweets and treats, or physically forcing

Pressure can feel like good parenting:

Reminding kids to eat, “making” kids eat all their vegetables, warning kids they will be hungry, making special food, or letting kids eat whenever they want between meals and snacks.

Pressure may not always be obvious to parents:

If you are trying to get your child to eat more, less or different food than he does on his own, this is pressure.


Why does restricting children from eating always backfire?

Because humans are evolutionarily primed to panic over food scarcity—even if it is perceived or only a few specific items are withheld—the response is still panic and stress. Children panic with food restriction and think, “I better eat as much as I can because who knows when I will get this again.” The unintended result is scavenging for any and all foods. 

In addition to panicking and seeking out food, children also obsess about the foods that are denied and then covet them. Therefore, they overeat these foods when given the chance. Remember, at some point all children will have access to foods restricted in the home, and when they do, watch out. Even worse, when children are denied certain foods, they misinterpret this as food scarcity and over time begin to overeat all foods, not just the restricted foods!

A third mistake would certainly be not knowing what is normal feeding behavior, and then panicking or pressuring the child about what are actually normal food behaviors! Therefore, It is key to know what is normal!


It is NORMAL that:

  • Some foods are harder to acquire a taste for than others. Babies are born liking sweets (no surprise, their first sustenance is sweet). But more challenging and unfamiliar foods often require prolonged, repeated exposure (15 to 20 times) before children are willing to even tolerate it, and many more to like it. Challenging foods have a strong taste, odor or unusual texture.
  • Kids may “like” a food, but not be willing to eat it every time it is offered (prompting the familiar, “What’s the matter, you liked it last week?").
  • Kids are unlikely to eat everything offered at a meal—they will gravitate to a few foods that they like. It is the parent’s job to expand their food repertoire by repeatedly exposing children to a variety of foods (even foods previously rejected) in a neutral feeding environment (no pressure, judgement).
  • Kids watch us eat for guidance and pay particular attention to nonverbal cues. Children tend to enjoy foods sooner when they see family members eating and enjoying it.

It is NOT normal:

  • For kids to eat a truly restricted diet (only a few “tried and true” foods)
  • For kids to get upset in the presence of a new food
  • For kids to refuse to eat out
Coming up, Part 3:  Fool Proof Tips For Feeding Kids

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