Giving children choices with limits during meals helps them form healthy eating habits beyond the kitchen table. Here’s how.
Most parents would probably agree that mealtimes with kids can be… challenging.
We want our children to be healthy and have balanced nutrition. We also want to know our efforts in the kitchen haven’t been a total waste.
But figuring out how to best accomplish those goals can sometimes prove harder than we ever thought it would be.
CNN recently published a piece about the four different feeding styles most parents embrace. Those feeding styles include:
This is a parent-centered style of eating. Mom and Dad make all the rules, and the child is expected to comply. It doesn’t matter if the child is full or has a true aversion to one of the options currently on their plate.
The child gets no say in how much of each food option they’re allowed. Parents force their child to clean their plate or take a set number of bites before they’re allowed to leave the table or have a dessert.
This style veers more into child-centered feeding. Parents allow the child to have anything they want to eat whenever they want it. Perhaps a parent says, “You want McDonald’s for dinner tonight? Great, let’s go!” or “Cookies for breakfast? Sure, why not!”
There are no boundaries or rules. Instead, the child is allowed to lead the way.
Parents following this style may also be more likely to reward good behavior, performance, or grades with food, such as ice cream for scoring a goal or cake for earning straight A’s.
Parents who embrace a neglectful feeding style are generally uninvolved in their child’s food choices. They may not shop for food regularly or actively put meals on the table.
When they do prepare a meal for their child, it can be sporadic and unexpected. Most of the time, children raised in this feeding style have to learn to fend for themselves.
Authoritative (‘love with limits’)
Parents embracing this style might give children a choice before preparing a meal. They may say things like, “Would you rather have chicken tacos or spaghetti tonight?”
They consider their child’s preferences when preparing food, but once that meal is made, that’s the only option available. There’s no skipping dinner for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich later.
There’s also no fighting over which foods on the table should be eaten or in what quantities they should be consumed. The child gets to make those choices, filling their plate with what they want to eat and ending the meal when they’re full.
Over the years, a fair amount of research on these various feeding styles has been done, examining the impact each can have on the health of children.
And it turns out, three of the four can contribute to a host of eating issues for children as they grow.
Feeding gone wrong
The authoritarian feeding style has been found to restrict a child’s ability to listen to and recognize their own hunger and fullness cues.
Kids raised with this feeding style are also more likely to struggle with weight issues and an inability to stop eating when they’re no longer hungry. The pressure to clean their plates, even past the point of fullness, lasts well into adulthood.
Children raised under a permissive feeding style tend to struggle more with creating healthy food boundaries. They’re more likely to prefer snack or junk foods and meals with limited nutritional value. They have a hard time regulating their food intake.
The neglectful feeding style can contribute to food insecurity. These kids don’t know how or when their next meal is coming, so they may become more obsessed with food and prone to overeating throughout their lives.
Feeding the healthy way
Childhood nutrition expert and registered dietitian Jill Castle tells Healthline that the authoritative or “love with limits” style is really the only feeding style associated with fostering a healthy relationship with food.
Through this style, children are taught to listen to their hunger and fullness cues. They’re given the ability to form their own taste preference but are still provided boundaries around mealtimes and eating.
“The parent is in charge of the structure of meals and snacks,” she explained. “They set the eating times and what will be served with the clear boundary of the kitchen being closed outside those set times. But then the child is in charge of two different things: what they will eat, based on what’s offered, and how much they will eat.”
This is important, Castle says, because “the child is in charge of their own body, and the parent is really just the provider of the meal.”
Saying goodbye to the ‘clean plate club’
Mark Corkins, a pediatric gastroenterologist with Le Bonheur Children’s Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee, told Healthline the attitudes surrounding feeding styles have changed because science and experience have allowed us to recognize the pitfalls in previously embraced styles.
“Before it was the ‘clean plate club,’” he said. “Parents would tell their kids about the starving children in Africa to get them to finish their meals. No one wanted to waste. It was bad because it created this culture where you had to eat all your food, even if you were full. And that has probably contributed in some ways to the current obesity problem.”
Castle also sees the opposite in her office.
“I have a lot of families who don’t want to say no to their children when it comes to food,” she said. “They don’t want to ignore their child’s cravings. They feel like they’re being mean. And I get that, too. They are reacting to their own childhoods, and they are trying to find a different way — often opposite of how they were raised.”
Yet, the end result is just a different side of the same coin.
“We have a lot of parents who are trying to do their best, but they’re guessing most of the time. They are using the latest fad diet or feeding approach, and it’s really hard on everyone,” Castle said.
There really is a better way
So what sets the “love with limits” approach apart from the rest?
It takes the fight out of parents’ hands. You don’t have to worry about how much your child is eating or negotiate one more bite of vegetables. You put the food on the table and allow them to accept responsibility for what and how much they eat.
Children get to develop their own taste preferences, usually venturing out into trying more food options since they don’t feel pressured or forced. They also learn to listen better to their own bodies.
But what if a child refuses to eat at mealtimes, only to complain about being hungry hours later?
Castle says to let them be hungry.
It’s advice that might make most parents gasp at first, but it may be more helpful in the long run. After all, one missed meal probably isn’t going to hurt them. But learning from that consequence might just be exactly what needs to happen to convince them to eat the next time a meal is served.
Setting the example
Corkins says a big part of avoiding those mealtime fights has a lot to do with parents setting an example from the beginning.
“They’re less likely to complain about eating peas if they see you doing it first,” Corkins explained.
Corkins says his youngest daughter and him have a game where he tries to steal peas off her plate. The result is that she guards and protects them and is happy to eat her vegetables.
“Some parents arrange them on a plate, some make smiley faces. It doesn’t really matter. The point is, make it fun. But also, set the example by eating in the way you hope to see them eat,” he said.
If your child is already a picky eater, he suggests continuing to offer new foods until they accept those foods. Keep putting carrots on the table, and keep showing your own willingness to eat them, until your child decides to give them a chance. Then you can move on to something else.
For parents hoping to improve their feeding game, Castle recommends reading Ellyn Satter’s “Division of Responsibility in Feeding.”
Castle also has a podcast with episodes dedicated to handling various feeding issues. One of her recent episodes focuses specifically on finding the perfect responses to a child who likes to pick a mealtime fight.
Her advice includes remaining unemotional and detached, refusing to engage in the fight, and telling the child simply, “This is what we’re having tonight. You don’t have to eat, but you do have to sit at the table until we’re done.”
Speaking of sitting at the table, Castle’s advice is to try to do that as a family at least three to five meals a week.
“It doesn’t have to be dinner. It can be breakfast or lunch or snacks. But what we know is that kids learn how to make good food choices by watching their parents do the same. And that happens best around the table. The research tells us that at least three to five times a week really does make a difference,” she said.