The nightly dinner battles many parents have with picky toddlers can be exhausting. Now, research suggests that either pressuring or rewarding kids to eat healthier may backfire.
"These practices can reinforce fussy eating, increase preferences for unhealthy foods, and lead to excessive weight gain," study author Holly Harris, from the Centre for Children's Health Research at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, said in a statement.
"Parents who address picky eating either with coercion or bribes may be setting the child up for problems down the road," said Dr Michael Grosso. He's chair of paediatrics at Northwell Health Huntington Hospital in New York.
In the study, the scientists followed more than 200 mothers and fathers. Their kids were between the ages of two and five, and the families came from a poor area of Queensland.
Parents answered questions about themselves, their children, their children's eating habits, how they responded to their child's eating patterns, and whether or not they were worried about how their child ate.
Mothers and fathers seemed to agree on whether or not a child was a fussy eater. But mothers worried more about their child's eating behaviour, and they were more distressed by crying, tantrums and gagging.
The researchers suspect the mother's extra concern may be why mothers were more likely to try to bribe or pressure a child into eating. Dads also tried to pressure their kids into eating. But the researchers said it wasn't due to concern about the child's fussy eating. Instead, the researchers believe fathers may be simply trying to shorten eating struggles.
So what can parents do to ease those mealtime showdowns?
Grosso and psychologist Judy Malinowski weighed in, and both agreed it's very important for parents to understand what's normal for their child's development.
"Children go through numerous stages of development, and part of that involves a changing sense of taste. What they liked last week, they might not like this week, and it can be because of the texture, colour or smell of a food," Malinowski explained. She's from Ascension Eastwood Behavioral Health in Novi, Michigan.
Grosso said the biggest problem he sees with eating is that parents think children are eating too little food. But young children don't need a lot of food.
"Most children will self-regulate their food intake appropriately," he said, adding that he often reassures parents by showing them their child is right where he or she should be on growth charts.
The next big issue, Grosso said, is power struggles. "Toddlers are all about establishing their own sphere of autonomy, and of the few things toddlers can control is what they eat. If parents try to be too restrictive, kids will react," he said.
Both experts said the key is to offer choices. Grosso suggested only offering healthy choices, because "given the choice between healthy and unhealthy, kids will eat candy bars before carrots."
He also recommended that children get age-appropriate servings of milk. "Kids do need calcium and vitamin D, but they shouldn't get most of their calories from one source," Grosso said.
Malinowski advised involving kids in cooking meals when possible. She also suggested giving choices, such as, "Do you want this food or that one?" or "Do you want a little or a lot?"
Praise kids for trying new foods and for eating what was on their plate, Malinowski said. "But don't punish or bribe for anything around food. This sets up the idea that one food is better than the other," she said.
And the good news is that most kids outgrow the fussy-about-food stage, or at least their pickiness tends to lessen as they get older, Grosso said.
The findings were published recently in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior.
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