How would you describe your child’s eating habits? Is your child a picky eater? Does he/she gravitate towards sweet foods? The way we choose to feed our children is deeply ingrained and reflects our own experiences with food as a child. A parent’s “feeding style” - the attitude and actions around food - is one of the biggest determiners of your child's relationship with food and, by extension, his or her health.
There are four known feeding styles that have been written about in the scientific literature, but three of them may negatively influence a child's emotional and physical health, according to Jill Castle, a registered dietitian, childhood nutrition expert and mother of four.
The first is an authoritarian or controlling feeding style, where parents may push a child to take more bites or finish their plate. Also, non-healthy, non-nutritious foods are restricted.
But with this feeding style, children are listening to their parents in order to make them happy, rather than listening to their own bodies. Parents are pressuring their child, even subtly, but over time, it can do more harm than good.
"In a vacuum, 'take two more bites' doesn't look horrible ... but over time, that message can influence a child's ability to honor and recognize their own hunger and fullness cues and listen to their own bodies," Castle told CNN. "If you are full, you are full, and beyond fullness is overeating.”
This can lead to weight problems. In addition, if second helpings are not allowed or sweets and treats are banned, children can become even more focused on the foods they are not getting.
"When he or she is around [sweets], that child might lose control and be very uninhibited," Castle said. "Parents will come to me and say, 'I'm finding wrappers in my child's bedroom, my child seems obsessed with food, and when I see them at a party, my kid is piling their plate with sweets and treats, and they are always eating.' "
Another harmful feeding style is permissive or "indulgent", in which a parent has loose reins on what a child eats and the access a child has to food. Kids are able to help themselves to whatever foods they want at any time, and parents have less control and less boundaries when it comes to sweets.
The result is kids having a tough time controlling their intake of unhealthy foods, and they may be at risk for gaining unnecessary weight.
Another piece of the “indulgent” feeding style is a practice called rewarding, in which a parent attaches a reward to eating or achievement. If a child does well on a test, he can have an ice cream.
The third type of feeding style is a neglectful or "uninvolved" style, where parents don’t put food as a high priority for shopping or meal planning.
"When a child is not sure when food will be served or can't get enough of a food or a type of food, they can become a bit more focused on food and exhibit behaviors that lead to overeating," Castle said.
The best feeding style is an authoritative style, which Castle defines as the "love with limits" style.This offers children boundaries and structure but still considers their feelings and preferences.
"A parent says, 'do you want green beans or broccoli for dinner?' The parent is still in control of the choices, so it's a reasonable choice," Castle said.
Encouraging kids to help prepare meals, go grocery shopping together, and allowing kids to choose what’s for dinner can encourage a healthy relationship with food and eating.
According to experts, parents who offer this type of supportive style, and respect their children's wishes are better able to help their kids make healthy food choices.
Research has shown that this parenting style (and not just with food) where parents offer clear boundaries and rules but is also emotionally connected and engaged with the child, is correlated with a lower body weight.