Yes, feeding children can be challenging. They can be picky eaters. They may start rejecting foods they once loved or feel too afraid to try new ones. They may refuse vegetables and insist that ketchup top everything. All these behaviors are normal, yet as parents, there are right ways and wrong ways to respond. We can help our kids push through these periods with healthy habits intact, or we can lead them toward overeating, emotional eating or picky eating through the way we handle food.
I spoke with Dina Rose, a sociologist, parent educator and author of “It’s Not About the Broccoli: Three Habits to Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating,” about creating and nurturing healthy relationships with food. Rose explained to me that “when parents are really heavily focused on their kids such as ‘how can I get my kid to eat this’ or on the food such as ‘what can I cook that is nutritious,’ it is difficult for them to focus on the interactions they have with their children and what those interactions teach.”
In her book, Rose breaks down many of the mistakes parents make when feeding their children, and categorizes these mistakes into parent feeding styles. “If you know your type, you can see how it influences your child and then compensate,” she says.”
These are the five types I most commonly see. Which are you?
The profile: Nurturers believe that food equals love. Nurturers feel good about themselves when they feed others. Watching a child’s face light up at an ice cream cone makes them feel fantastic because nurturers often believe that treats are an essential part of a happy childhood.
The result: Giving kids treats to express love usually means these kids eat more unhealthy food than they should. These children also learn to confuse feelings with food. Love is a feeling; food is just food. Treats should be eaten in moderation, yet a parent’s love shouldn’t be bestowed in moderation.
The profile: Food police do not allow their children to eat candy or drink soda, prohibit anything with high-fructose corn syrup or artificial dyes, and restrict sweets to homemade brownies made with black beans and applesauce. They want their children to get all their important nutrients from healthy, unprocessed foods. These parents become overly restrictive with less healthful foods or force their children to eat the healthful ones even when the kids resist.
The result: Mealtime becomes a battleground, tense and unhappy, an association that can last into adulthood. Kids won’t learn to listen to their own hunger cues when forced to eat foods they don’t want, which can lead to adult overeating. Restricted kids often binge-eat the foods that they are not allowed to have in secret.
The profile: Nutritionistas know so much about nutrition and are so worried about getting specific nutrients into their kids that they lose sight of the big picture. They often settle on less healthy foods because, for instance, the hot dog they feed their son every night has some protein, the ice cream has some calcium and the Gatorade has some electrolytes.
The result: These children usually have a very a limited diet of less-than-healthy foods and a parent who is constantly worried about whether their child has eaten enough distinct nutrients.
The profile: Hunger avoiders are parents who are uncomfortable letting their children be hungry, ever. They give their kids the foods they like at all times. These parents often are afraid that if their child does not eat enough, he will be underweight and will not develop properly.
The result: Hunger avoiders usually raise kids who eat a monotonous diet of a few favorite foods, kids who snack too much and kids who use their hunger to get their parents’ attention. These kids learn that hunger is a feeling to avoid at all costs, which can cue overeating.
The profile: Comforters use food to stop their child from having uncomfortable feelings, such as pain from a skinned knee or disappointment from a bad grade. These parents teach their kids that eating cookies and ice cream is an effective way to cure uncomfortable emotions.
Rewarders are similar to comforters, but instead of masking uncomfortable feelings with treats, rewarders dole out sugar to celebrate every success and happy moment.
The result: Treating feelings (bad or good) with food can lead to adult emotional eating and overeating. Children will learn that feeling upset is the same as feeling hungry when we’d rather teach them how to deal with those uncomfortable emotions through communication, self-care or even a hug from Mom or Dad. Overeating to celebrate can lead to adult overeating and alcohol overindulgence.
I asked Rose what else parents can do, especially if they have spent years repeating negative interactions with their children. She says that the key to changing eating habits is to start with a conversation that recognizes the feelings of the child. It will be a simple conversation with a 5-year-old or a more sophisticated conversation with a teen.
She suggests parents say something like this: “I want to tell you how sorry I am that this has been so hard for you, that I contributed toward making this hard for you.” Then you can address the specific issues that need to change and make a plan with your child.
“Your child needs to see you as a resource,” she says, “not the stress or the problem.”