Parent Feeding Styles

Welcome to 2019!

Now over a week in and I feel like the New Year is officially in full swing. I know as moms, many of may have goals for the upcoming year about how we hope to feed ourselves or focus on our own health, fitness, and well-being. These are honorable and often ambitious intentions to set at the start of the year, especially amidst the realities, strains, and stresses that come with motherhood. Even if we lose steam on some and have to re-evaluate others a few months from now, it is important for us to recognize:

We have the potential to create positive OR negative norms every day of the year in how we talk about, embrace, and/or enforce our relationships with food.

Have you considered that? The new year’s resolutions you might be setting for yourself may also significantly impact the extent that your family enjoys food, finds exercise to feel good, and practices a healthy body image (or doesn’t) in the New Year? As moms, we are constantly shaping our children’s perceptions and experiences with eating, exercising, and their overall health through how we speak to these areas in our own lives. We think that we can separate “our issues” with food, dieting, exercise, and body image from how we feed our child(ren), pour into their development, encourage their love of activity, and foster a strong self-confidence. But the reality is, when New Years roll around, so many of the scars or struggles we as moms have surrounding food become shared with our kids as well.

I see so many moms use the New Year as an excuse for a “new you,” instead of it being just another day and another opportunity for us as women to better understand our own relationships with food, health, and wellness so that we can continue to move forward. We are feeding ourselves and our families day in, day out and the New Year doesn’t change that. What will, however, is if we see the new year as a new opportunity to evaluate whether or not we are shaping our own and our children’s eating habits in the most productive ways possible.

That’s why in this post, I want to start the New Year off by evaluating our feeding styles and addressing why our approaches to food parenting are often the foundation for success (or stress) with food in the upcoming year.

Feature a picture that I will use on Instagram for a FAQ Friday, etc post

Here’s what you can expect from this post:

  1. Reflecting: Considerations Every Parent Should Ask Themselves About Feeding

  2. Reviewing: A Look at Different Feeding Styles and Food Parenting Approaches

  3. Responding: How to Move Forward with a Healthy Food Parenting Approach

Parent Feeding Styles: How We Food Parent and Why it Matters

Reflecting: Questions Every Parent Should Ask Themselves About Feeding

First, have you ever evaluated how you as a parent relate to food? In our current dichotomy of a diet culture versus intuitive eating food environment, some may know of this as what stretches far beyond just our “eating habits” (since those can change often, specially in seasons like right now/post-New Year).

Instead, just like any other relationship in our lives, our relationships with food can be nourishing or negative to our overall health. Ellyn Satter explains what a joy of eating (in our relationships with food) to be:

… positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable food. Even though they don’t worry about what and how much to eat, competent eaters do better nutritionally, are more active, sleep better, and have better lab tests. They are more self-aware and self-accepting, not only with food, but in all ways. To be a competent eater, be relaxed, self-trusting, and joyful about eating, and take good care of yourself with food.

In many families, one parent was raised to relate with food in one way and the other parent a different way. While this can create some conflict in how we are naturally inclined to feed our children (more on that to come), it is critical to hone in on how the approaches we were raised with shaped our own relationships with food, our body, and the way we self-regulate our diet and exercise:

Is chronic dieting something you and your spouse have always struggled with? Or, are you someone who has always felt comfortable in your own body shape and size?

Do you or your spouse tend to use food as a reward or overly restrict it? Or, are you able to enjoy a wide variety of food (including indulgences over the holidays!) without feeling guilt, shame, or a feeling of having “cheated” on your diet?

Do you or your spouse tend to overeat or allow the sign of a clean plate be your gauge for when to stop? Or, are you someone who is mindful about what you put in your mouth and empowered to stop whenever you feel satisfied?

Growing up, were family meals erratic and unpleasant in your family? Or, do you have fond memories of the time your family spent in the kitchen and around the table?

Thinking through the range of ways we relate with food as parents can be a valuable and preliminary process to developing a feeding style that works for our families. That’s because we begin to identify areas in our own feeding relationships that we wish were different. For example, in the above questions, many of us probably read at least one of the latter statements and thought, “Hmmm, that must be nice!” as if it was not even an option for us.

Part of the reason for that is because of how we were raised to relate with food. Just as there are many ways for us to parent our children, there are just as many ways for us to food parent our children as well. We see the repercussions of this in ourselves and how we feel about our own bodies, eating and exercise habits, and overall feelings towards food. The same will be true for our own kids too someday in how they feel about their bodies, eating and exercise habits, and overall feelings towards food. That’s why I am deeply passionate not just about the foods we feed our kids now, but maybe even more so the behaviors that accompany them.

I encourage parents to reflect on their own relationships with food. Some productive ways to begin this process might be working with a Registered Dietitian or reading resources to help reframe how you relate with food (like this one). As parents begin to talk through their own experiences with food and identify some of their innate approaches to feeding, parents can:

  1. Identify what your current approach to feeding is.

  2. Ask yourself, “What is your goal is in wanting your child to eat what is offered?”

  3. List out your answers to, “What are your biggest frustrations in feeding your child?” 

These questions, discussed more in the article link below, might help parents to begin to address their starting place while also mapping out some of their hopes for how they want to re-establish new norms in the way they feed both themselves and their families.

Reviewing: A Look at Feeding Styles and Food Parenting Approaches

So why does how we relate to food as parents matter? It matters because for most of us, we come into parenting with some preset opinions on how we will handle things from everyday basics like sleep and car seat safety to more personal preferences like cloth or disposable diapering and putting our children in preschool or homeschooling them in those early years. We also enter parenthood with some preset opinions and often expectations of how we will feed our families. These preconceived feeding styles are often similar to the more general ways we remember our parents feeding us as kids. The challenge is that as parents now ourselves, we see there are so many seemingly small behaviors that make up our overall approaches to feeding. While each behavior might seem insignificant to the overall feeding style we want to use, they often create a slippery slope that leads to more meal time stress and less feeding success.

If as children, we were raised to be competent eaters ourselves or have since practiced intuitive eating in our adult lives, then that default we often drift back to in how we feed our children might not be that bad (particularly if our children are adventurous eaters to begin with). However, in majority of families and particularly in those who have struggled with picky eating, the way we feed our families and establish one’s relationship with food is not necessarily a natural, positive, nor productive path. That’s why we need to consider how certain behaviors in our feeding styles impact our children and often, leave them learning to relate with food in whatever ways we do - for better or worse.

In this article, researchers summarize that there are two different types of parental feeding strategies presented in the literature: feeding styles and food parenting:

The difference between the two is that feeding styles describe the more general parent-child interactions across food-related situations whereas food parenting practices include specific behaviors or rules parents use to control what, how much, or when their child eats, through, for example, pressure to eat vegetables, restricting foods, using foods as a reward or making foods available and accessible

In general, parenting styles are categorized based off of one’s demandingness and responsiveness. The same dimensions are used when evaluating the sub-category of one’s feeding style. Alternatively, one’s food parenting practices or feeding practices (referenced here) are considered, “specific goal-directed behaviors used by parents to directly influence their children's eating.” For the purpose of this post, we are going to summarize the most common feeding styles while also highlighting which feeding practices play into each.

Researchers often group parents into one of four feeding styles based on their parenting styles (source). These are:

  1. Authoritative: high demanding, high responsive = The “Division of Responsibility” parent

    ATTITUDE: Parent is responsive to the child, puts structure and boundaries around meal time, and shows respect for the child’s food choices

    APPROACH: Parent uses the tactics of trust and choice

    EXAMPLE: Parent actively encourages child to eat when food is offered and explains the rules around the food offered, as needed, in sensitive, supportive ways.

    EFFECT: Child tends to have a healthy weight, be good at self-regulating their own eating, and to make healthier food choices

  2. Authoritarian: high demanding, low responsive = The “Clean your plate” parent

    ATTITUDE: Parent tends to be show little trust in their child’s food preferences or hunger/fullness signals

    APPROACH: Parent uses control and tactics like rewards, restricts, pressures, and prompts to get their children to eat a certain food or amount

    EXAMPLE: Parent requires child to eat certain foods and/or amounts. The rules around the foods offered are not responsive to a child’s hunger, fullness, or food preferences but rather parent-centered rules. This might look like a parent requiring their child to clean their plate before being able to be excused or take a specific number of bites before being allowed to have dessert.

    EFFECT: Child tends to have poor appetite regulation and be less likely to eat fruits and vegetables. Most linked to overweight and obesity.

  3. Indulgent (also known as permissive): low demanding and high responsive = The “Yes” parent

    ATTITUDE: Parent tends to allow their child to eat anything, anytime

    APPROACH: Parent uses tactics like short-order cooking or allowing child to graze all day so that child will eat.

    EXAMPLE: Parent allows child to decide the what, when, and where they eat in order to encourage eating with very few rules around it. This might look like the parent who tends to ask make whatever their child asks for at a given meal or snack on a regular, reoccuring basis, allows their child to help themselves to any and all snack foods at any time of day, or overly caters to a child’s food preferences so much so that the child is unable to eat from or accept a meal made for their family at large.

    EFFECT: Child tends to gain too much weight and be out of touch with what foods and how much of each to eat. Most linked with high intake of sweets and high fat foods.

  4. Uninvolved (also known as neglectful): low demanding, low responsive = The “fly by the seat of their pants” parent

    ATTITUDE: Parent shows low sensitivity to their child’s needs around food/eating

    APPROACH: Parent fails to plan and prepare food in a regular, reliable manner

    EXAMPLE: Parent doesn’t make demands on their child to eat but also doesn’t have meal time routines or responsibilities in place to provide support for child’s needs. This might look like the parent who has erratic and unpredictable patterns in things like grocery shopping, meal planning, and meal preparations and considers food and feeding very low priority (relative to other priorities).

    EFFECT: Child tends to be pre-occupied with food, worrying or anxious about it causing them to over or under eat. May have trust issues with caregiver.

The above food parenting styles and practices are further summarized in the literature in studies like here and here, as well as trusted pediatric nutrition resources like Fearless Feeding (affiliate link). By reviewing these over-arching definitions of food parenting types, parents can begin to better understand which camp they most often fall into and how such habitual behaviors in the feeding relationship might impact their child’s diet and overall health.

Responding: How to Move Forward with a Healthy Food Parenting Approach

In parenting, there are a lot of gray areas that our children’s will likely come out of well no matter what we do. For the examples above, whether we:

Sleep trained our children or not

Kept our children rear-facing until four or not

Used clothe diapers or not

Home-schooled our children before kindergarten or not

These are preferences that do shape our children’s upbringing. But the reality is, if you sit with your adult child thirty years from now, none of these will still have the same lasting impact on them that the way how you fed them will. Before anyone emails me arguing different, let me acknowledge that yes, these choices we make for our families can absolutely shape future habits for sleep, safety, environmental mindfulness, and academics. I am not trying to dismiss that. My point is that food and it’s repeated presence in our lives is something that we are shaping every day of the year in our kids. Not just right after New Years.

Be it in obesity prevention and the prevention of eating disorders, we as parents must be mindful of how to raise children who have an innate sense of how to live healthy lifestyles. Our goal here is not on weight alone, nor is it on creating such an obsession to health that the opposite effect occurs. Instead, our aim in how we raise our kids to relate with food, however similar or different from ours, should be rooted in the long term impacts we want for them.

Of course, we want them to have healthy, balanced diets in the short term. But the reality is that if we use (or avoid) the above behaviors appropriately and adopt an evidenced-based food parenting approach effectively, and our child still never eats a stalk of broccoli before they’re seven, it is okay.

That’s because in these early years when we begin to shift how we feed, we are setting that foundation for how our kids relate with food for their whole lives. These are the habits they can only wish, “Hmmmm, I wish I had that” later on in life when they themselves are parents. Or, they can be the example in their adult lives of someone whom their family and friends see as being genuinely healthy, mindful, and confident around food and their overall health.

This is where the Division of Responsibility comes in.

If you have spent any time following me or checking out my Start Here page, you know I believe this feeding foundation is one of the best starting places for setting up a feeding environment with less meal time stress and more feeding success. Beyond just the basics of a parent’s role and a child’s role in the feeding relationship though, I want to highlight how some of the behaviors highlighted in the parent feeding styles above are to be used, avoided, or in need of further consideration.

Food Parenting Behaviors

The following behaviors were selected from a list of constructs researched in the article, “Fundamental constructs in food parenting practices: a content map to guide future research.”

Behaviors to Practice:

  • Trust: Practice trusting your child to choose and control their own intake based on their unique biological needs, while also teaching them to trust themselves to eat according to their own hunger and fullness cues. Show your child that they can trust you to provide regular meals and snacks, at predictable times and places, with a variety of foods that they both enjoy and are learning to like, and using a consistent feeding approach. This teaches your child to trust their own ability to self-regulate and makes for a healthy and reciprocal feeding relationship.

  • Limited or Guided Choice: Give your child age-appropriate limits on the options of foods offered to them. Allow them the choice of if/whether and how much they eat from such foods in a way that represents a sharing of control and decision making between you and them. This gives them an appropriate amount of control without giving them more freedom than they know how to handle at a young age.

  • Routine: Offer meals and snacks at routine times and locations in the presence of others and the absence of distractions (like books, toys, TV, tablets, etc.). This kind of structure prevents grazing and allows safe, predictable, and intentional eating opportunities that your child will learn to thrive within.

  • Modeling: Demonstrate a healthy relationship with food in your food choices and eating behaviors. This will encourage your child to mimic such behaviors from a young age through adolescence and into adulthood.

  • Food Availability: Make different types and amounts of foods available to your child. This helps them to understand when more food is available (instead of being unnecessarily restricted).

  • Food Accessibility: Give your child access to a variety of foods your child loves, likes, and is still learning. Make both healthy options and occasional preferred, less healthful foods available as well. This allows your child to eat a well-balanced diet.

  • Food Prep: Practice preparing and cooking meals in a manner that allows for simple and yet healthy, balanced meals and snacks.

  • Child Involvement: Involve your child during meal planning, grocery shopping, meal preparation, and mealtimes. This passed down family norms and traditions while also providing your child with an opportunity to become more familiar with new foods.

Behaviors to Avoid:

The following definitions were summarized from a list of construct definitions provided in the article, “Fundamental constructs in food parenting practices: a content map to guide future research.”

  • Unstructured Practices: Don’t use practices that provide no oversight, guidance, or direction, or allow for children to make inappropriate eating decisions. Such behaviors as grazing and overly catering to your child’s demands with behaviors like short-order cooking can result in a lower quality diet and children not seeing a healthy lifestyle.

  • Restriction: Don’t enforce strict limitations on your child’s access to foods or opportunities to consume those foods. This is usually done to control child’s intake of unhealthy foods but instead, it can create an increased interest or obsession with such foods and greater tendency to overeat for the child.

  • Pressure: Don’t insist, demand, or physically struggle with your child in order to get the child to eat more food. This interferes with your child’s intrinsic ability to self-regulate what and how much they eat.

  • Threats or bribes: Don’t threaten to take/takes something away for misbehavior or promises/offer rewards for something to your child in return for a desired behavior. This form of behavior management can undermine internal forms of motivation for your child to eat healthy foods and instead increase preference for the food used as a reward.

  • Using food to control negative emotions: Don’t use food to manage or calm your child when he/she is upset, fussy, angry, hurt, or bored. This can create habits of emotional eating long term.

Behaviors to Use with Caution:

There is research to both support or counter the arguments for each of the following behaviors. More research is needed to clearly outline if and how these behaviors can best be used to support healthy eating habits in children.

  • Monitoring: Be aware of how your child’s growth and development tracks for their age and monitor if and what foods or behaviors best help them make healthy choices. This encourages balance and variety in a way that promotes growth and development without becoming obsessive. However, do not excessively monitor your child’s diet nor every bite. This can become counter-productive when done in such a way that it becomes over-protective.

  • Encouragement: While you might decide to lightly suggest specific foods to your child as a prompt for them to eat, be careful to do so without a consequence for noncompliance. Some children, particularly those with picky eating, have personalities and temperaments that will shut down instead of blossom when any form of encouragement is used. Sometimes merely offering a food and saying nothing else is the better option because it prevents us from saying too much or using a tone of voice or lack of responsiveness to your child that mimics pressure or force.

  • Praise: Praise the process not the person. This means, you can praise your child’s willingness to learn to like a new food by allowing it on their plate, touching, or tasting it (even if they decide they’re still learning to like it and ultimately don’t eat it). This may increase acceptance of new foods and create positive reinforcement for some children’s involvement in the process of eating. This can also widely vary with a child’s temperament and level of selectivity towards trying new foods though. If using praise, be sure you don’t tie your child’s worth to whether they eat or don’t. Using conditional terms like “You’re a good boy (or girl)” can hinder a child’s internal desire to adopt healthy habits.

  • Nutrition Education: While nutritional education can help children to make informed choices about the foods they eat (especially as they get older), more conclusive research is needed to support the use of nutrition education being used at the table. In general, most education that parents attempt to share with their children is not age-appropriate nor something they are even able to grasp at their age. Additionally, children often don’t know how to use or translate such attempts at nutrition education so it can create more harm than good for some children to be exposed to this information than not at all. In general, it is best to avoid using messages about a foods healthfulness (or lack thereof) to reason or pressure your child to eat (or avoid) them. Instead, expose them to what a healthy diet is and let them learn that from experience instead of verbal education.

  • Reasoning: More research is needed to determine if and how the use logic or explanations to persuade your child to change their eating behaviors impacts their dietary intake. Avoid encouraging healthy foods as “good” or discouraging unhealthy foods as “bad,” or using reasoning that is done with a tone, intention, or motivation to “get your child to eat.” This can undermine the behaviors we want to practice and more closely reflect those we are trying to avoid. Additionally, children often learn that foods don’t taste as good require reasoning (like “Eat your broccoli because it is good for you”), while no reasoning is needed to get children to eat foods they willingly prefer (like ice cream). For this reason, it is often best to limit reasoning and instead to focus on talking about a food’s attributes in other ways that help your child learn to like them.

  • Negotiation: While research is unclear on exactly how negotiation impacts a child’s long term diet, some families might be successful with coming to an agreement about what or how much the child will eat. This behavior can support a child’s autonomy when parents respect their child’s desires and preferences for if/whether and how much they will eat. Negotiations that use subtle pressure, however, can create conflict and make children less willing to eat on their own. Any negotiations that create conflict at the table (i.e. a three bite rule, etc.) are best avoided as they more often than not derail families from following a Division of Responsibility in feeding approach.

Final Thoughts

By reflecting on what of our own health-related baggage we are coming into the New Year with, reviewing some of the behaviors we can change in how we food parent with the aim of impacting our children’s relationships with food for the better, and responding in a way that applies evidenced-based best practices to our own family meal times, 2019 can be a year of true transformation. I hope you’re ready for it!