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Forging healthy eating habits for children

The Star

by Nichole Hacha-Thomas

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Your toddler pushes the plate away, your school age child requests the same meal you’ve served the past three nights, and your teenager is headed out the door to eat fast food with his friends. Sound familiar?

Parents are the most important influence on children’s eating habits according to the United States Department of Agriculture’s Center for Nutrition Policy and Promotion. Resources for helping parents learn about nutrition are everywhere you look. But once you have this information, how can you use that knowledge and actually succeed in helping your kids eat healthier?

Sheryl O. Hughes, PhD., of the Children’s Nutrition Research Center of Baylor College of Medicine, has identified three common parenting styles related to feeding your children.

  • The over-controlling style — these parents want to make sure their children eat enough or eat the right kind of foods. They do this by trying to control exactly what and how much their children eat. An over controlling parent may tell her child to “clean his plate” or may use food as a punishment or reward. “No dessert until you’ve eaten all of your vegetables,” the parent may say.

The problem with this approach is that children decide how much to eat based not on how hungry they are, but on what their parents tell them to do. Children treated in this manner may begin to ignore their body’s natural feelings of fullness, putting them at risk for obesity.

  • The indulgent style — parents operating under this style want to keep their children happy, and make sure that they have enough to eat. To do this, parents may allow their children to eat whatever they want and as much of it as they want. Indulgent parents may fix a special meal for a child who doesn’t want what the rest of the family is eating, or may allow their child to eat as much candy or chips as they want. These parents may also use food to comfort children who are upset.

This feeding style increases children’s risk of obesity because children may eat lots of high calorie food with little nutritional value.

  • The responsive style — a responsive parent provides their children with healthy choices but allows them to decide if — and how much — they want to eat.

This encourages children to pay attention to their internal feelings of fullness making them less likely to overeat. Responsive parents usually are more successful in encouraging their children to try new foods. Research shows that children may need to try a new food more than 10 times before developing a preference for it. Using this approach also helps parents avoid turning mealtime into a power struggle with their child.

Resources for helping children develop healthier eating habits