Medical Nutrition Therapy Blog

Parental Feeding Styles and Influence on Child Eating Behavior

Parental Feeding Styles and Division of Responsibility in Child Feeding

Who is tired of the dinner-time struggle? I know you mentally raised your hand. I would be lying if I said that a large percentage of my caseload is not referrals for picky eating or problem eating. Often this manifests itself as excess growth velocity or conversely, poor growth in a child. Caregivers everywhere are fed up with chicken nuggets for dinner and demands for boxed Kraft (but only the orange kind). Maybe you can’t take another day of stubborn food refusal, whining, counting your child’s bites, trying to convince them to eat more, or trying to get them to eat more fruits and vegetables. Help is here, friend. I too have experienced the dreaded picky eater. And I have conquered it. That last statement is a little much, but what I can say (without feeling like a liar) is that things are going pretty good over here, all things considered. There is a better way to feed your child(ren), with a whole lot less mealtime stress. So, we are going to unpack parental styles as they relate to feeding, and how they might be helping or hindering your child’s eating behaviors. Also, the beloved Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) in Feeding, some golden tips on how to address picky eating, and what to do if you are concerned about your child’s weight gain. This post in general addresses picky eating when a developmental delay or severe sensory aversions are not present, although many of the same strategies discussed are employed in those scenarios.

Parenting Styles and Feeding Kids 

The first step is to identify which kind of parental feeding style you use to feed your child and reflect on why you might be feeding this way. There are four basic parenting styles that we are going to review. The parenting approach to feeding and mealtime practices in the home has a pronounced influence on how kids will eat, and therefore grow. I want to start by saying that not every caretaker cleanly fits into one of these molds. Also, the parenting style you find yourself relating to most does not define you as a parent. If you feel reassured in some of your parenting behaviors, great. If you identify something that you would like to work on, that’s great too. Perpetual growth is the key to parenting happiness. I made that up but it sounds true. You might just realize that your parenting style has evolved or changed in some ways over time. Personally, I went from making sure my first daughter knew the entire alphabet, every color, and the numbers one through ten by the ripe old age of one, to taking a more “Jesus take the wheel” approach with daughter number two. We hope she learns some of that stuff in preschool. I am learning too.

Parenting Styles

  1. Authoritative/Democratic: “The Division of Responsibility” Parent

You may have this parenting style if you are responsive to the child and put structure and boundaries in place around mealtime. You tend to show respect for the child’s food preferences, while also adhering to healthy dietary habits. The parent trusts the child’s innate ability to know when they are hungry or full. The child tends to make healthier food choices, have a healthier weight, and practice good self-regulation skills for eating.

  1. Permissive/Indulgent: The “Yes” Parent

You may have this parenting style if you are oversensitive to the hunger and fullness cues of the child. You have low expectations around meal structure and eating behaviors and do not enforce routines or boundaries.

This parent tends to allow their child to eat anything, anytime. This parent will likely make a separate meal for a child from the planned family meal, according to their food preferences. A permissive parenting style is also negatively correlated with modeling healthy eating behaviors.

The child is at risk of gaining too much weight and being out of touch with what and how much to eat as they tend to consume more highly sweetened energy-dense, and high-fat foods.

  1. Authoritarian/Disciplinarian: The “My Way or the Highway” Parent

You may have this parenting style if you have high expectations about what your child will eat at the table and strict rules around food, such as “You have to finish your food before being excused.” This type of parent feeding interaction shows little trust in the child’s food preferences and hunger and fullness signals.

Rewards are often used to encourage the child to eat more food or certain types of food, like vegetables. An example of this is, “You can have dessert after eating your broccoli.” When children are forced to override the body telling them to stop eating because they are full, this could lead to overeating and therefore put them at risk for becoming overweight. Many of us remember the “Clean Plate Club” that we were subjected to as children and may have our own struggles with recognizing when we are eating out of hunger, boredom, or something else. Additionally, the child may eat less due to the pressure and stress of mealtimes and not gain weight adequately.

  1. Uninvolved: The “Figure it Out” Parent

You may have this parenting style if food is a low priority and you forget to plan and prepare food in a regular, timely manner. Feeding a child this way could contribute to the child wondering when their next meal or snack will be or if there will be enough. They may also have suboptimal nutritional status because of a lack of attention to balanced and nutritious meals. This could lead to them over or undereating at mealtimes. They also may have trust issues with their caregiver.

It is important to note that if you fall into one of the four parenting styles, you are a parent with good intentions in regards to feeding your child. We all want our children to eat healthily and use the skills we have to try and get them to do so. With the correct tools, we can encourage our children to eat in a health-promoting way that doesn’t do any damage to honoring their satiety, as well as food preferences.

It is important to note that if you fall into one of the four parenting styles, you are a parent with good intentions in regards to feeding your child. We all want our children to eat healthily and use the skills we have to try and get them to do so. With the correct tools, we can encourage our children to eat in a health-promoting way that doesn’t do any damage to honoring their satiety, as well as food preferences.

Using Food as a Reward

Food is commonly used as a reward. Like most of us mortals, I admit I am guilty of this too. I have definitely offered a lollipop in exchange for smiling at the camera. And I know better! I get how tough it is to never cave into this practice. If the child finishes their homework they get ice cream, clean their room and it is a cupcake. Trying to get a child to eat their vegetables by bribing them with dessert, makes the dessert seem more desirable. This teaches kids to overvalue the reward food, which may lead to overeating and making poor food choices as the child gets older. Rewarding your child with an edible treat for good behavior in the grocery store, doctor’s office, or any sort of public outing teaches them that food is correlated with their behavior. If they’re good they get to eat ‘X’ food (typically chips, soda, cookies, etc). The child learns that food is associated with behavior or feelings, as opposed to hunger and fullness. Thus, increasing the child’s chances of emotional eating, binging, or high levels of restrained eating.

The Division of Responsibility In Feeding 

Children, given the correct supportive environment, have the innate ability to monitor their food intake and grow in the way that is right for them. Below is an outline of the child’s and the parent’s roles in feeding.

Responsibilities of the Child

  1. The child is responsible for how much they eat.
  2. The child is responsible for whether they eat.
  3. Behave well during mealtimes.

Responsibilities of the Caretakers

  1. Choose what they will eat. You are the gatekeeper and the final say in all foods offered and consumed.
  2. Choose when they will eat. A structured feeding schedule helps kids to know what to expect and encourages healthy eating behaviors.
  3. Choose where they will eat. Family-style meals, where the food is placed in the middle of the table and everyone can decide what goes on their plates are preferred.
  4. Model the healthy eating behaviors you wish to see. Eating together allows the parent to lead by example. This is how kids learn.
  5. Choose and prepare foods to serve for regular meals and snacks.
  6. Offer everyone at the table the same foods, however, be considerate of the child’s preferences and also introduce new foods. Realistically, some homes have allergies, intolerances, religious or other ethical needs to consider. All things considered, offer children a meal as close as possible to the caretaker(s).
  7. Create a pleasant mealtime environment.
  8. Expect appropriate mealtime behaviors.
  9. Do not allow food or beverages (except water) between meal and snack times. Grazing quickly fills small tummies and sets a precedence of anything goes.
  10. Respect your child’s unique size and shape and allow them to grow into the body that is meant for them.

Eliminating Stress at Mealtime 

The environment that you create during meal and snack times is an important part of the role of the caregiver to encourage positive behaviors. Children are intuitive. They can sense when a caregiver is stressed or anxious about feeding and mealtimes. Pressure, coercion, and stress can negatively influence a child. Some tips to set a positive environment at the table include eating together as a family, turning off all electronic devices and removing distractions such as toys, serving food family-style, having conversations that are not about food, or that discuss food practically and productively. Electronics tend to be a guest at the dinner table in many homes. It is very difficult to teach a child appropriate mealtime behaviors when children are on tablets, parents are on cell phones, or the television is on. It is important to try not to pressure children to eat in a specific way. Pressure can be seen as positive such as praising the child for eating certain foods over others, reminding, and bribing or rewarding the child for eating certain foods, like vegetables. Negative pressure includes restricting amounts or types of food within a meal, coaxing, punishing, forcing, threatening the child about eating, or giving them “the look” for eating too much or too little. Instead, talk about the joy food brings and what foods make us feel good. Discuss the flavor, texture, and color of the food; “This bread is soft, warm and savory,” “these cookies are crunchy and sweet.” Other conversations for the table might include what the child’s favorite part of the day was, what they’re looking forward to, or just talking about things the family enjoys.

Tips for Picky Eaters Using The Division of Responsibility

Most young children are innately picky about food and may refuse new foods at first. As children grow, develop feeding skills, and learn to exercise their autonomy they are more likely to say no to new foods and hold out for foods they know that they like. Pickiness may be fleeting, or a child may seem stuck in the picky eating rut. If your child gets upset when they see an unfamiliar food, has a shrinking list of favorite foods or foods they will eat, and/or you find yourself making special food for them at mealtime an intervention is needed.

Regular, scheduled meals and sit-down snacks can help, as well as not allowing the child to graze in-between meal and snack times. Do not ask the child what they would like to eat. Consider their preferences and provide at least one component they typically would eat. You should set clear boundaries at mealtimes; this is when we are eating and there will be no food until the next meal or snack. Do not comment on what or how much your child eats during these meals and snacks. They do not have to eat anything if they don’t want to. Over time, your child will get used to the new mealtimes and snacks and be more relaxed and happier when it’s time to eat.

If you’re just starting out feeding this way, take heart in knowing that it will take time and your child will adjust. They may sit with you at the table and watch you eat a new kind of food. Then they might want it on their plates to explore, including touching, looking, smelling, and licking it. Over time they will likely eat the food, and even if they spit it out a few times they’re better off than when they began. It can take many exposures (looking, touching, smelling, tasting) for a child to try a new food or even a new cooking method. Forcing a child to swallow unfamiliar food may decrease food acceptance. Let them go at their own pace. Keep eating and serving foods you and your family enjoy and that provide a balance of all food groups and nutrients. You can cycle through meals that work for your family and include everyone’s food preferences within reason, without making separate meals. Check out our blog post on picky eating for plenty of advice on dealing with a picky eater.

Tips for Children Who Are Overweight or Obese

This is undoubtedly one of the most stigmatized and unspoken about topics when it comes to child feeding. Although greater than 20% of kids in the U.S. have obesity, (which is a chronic disease by the way), oftentimes we still can’t bring ourselves to accept that it is a problem. I am not talking about the healthcare world, where it is pretty much the opposite. I would argue that too much emphasis is placed on weight alone by many healthcare professionals. But out in the real world, how often do you discuss your child’s weight, or hear others do the same? Weight stigma creates a sense of shame around obesity.  As a dietitian I counsel many families on treating obesity. It is a sensitive subject, for sure. I avoid all talk of weight and calories with my pediatric patients. I promote body positivity and behavior change. I do know, however, that obesity is a public health concern. It is something that should be addressed by caretakers and healthcare providers in a way to minimize emotional harm and to instead help kids develop healthy relationships with food and mindful eating practices.

Greater than 20% of kids in the U.S. have obesity

When extra weight is a concern, the same feeding strategies previously discussed apply. Scheduled meals and sit-down snacks. Family meals and a pleasant mealtime environment. Limiting in-between-meal food and beverages to water. Reassure kids that the next meal or snack is coming if they tell you they are hungry in between. Consistency is key and builds trust with your child. Next, reflect on what foods you may be exposing your child to most often. If it is mostly highly palatable foods like sugar-sweetened beverages, desserts, high sodium take-out or snacks, you may want to evaluate the variety in which you are providing your child. Indeed, a wide variety of health-promoting foods like whole grains, nuts, seeds, fruits, vegetables, and lean protein are beneficial to everyone’s health. Giving your child a variety of food exposures and letting them choose which ones they enjoy, as well as a physical activity they enjoy gives them a sense of autonomy that will drive them to make a healthier approach to food. Practice covert restriction, which means that foods that you do not want a child to eat are not available to anyone in the home. Do not allow one child to have ice cream and the other child gets a sugar free popsicle. Do not try to restrict your child, control their portion sizes or push low-calorie foods on them during mealtime, or they will likely feel hurt and confused. This can lead to the child begging for food, and eating whenever they can due to a sense of food insecurity.

If you feel like this might be occurring with your child, team up with a dietitian to implement a health-promoting plan that addresses these concerns.

Encouraging Mealtime Talk

What we say has an impact. A well-meaning caretaker can hurt or help with words when it comes to food and eating (or anything else).

Make a statement to point out the sensory quality of foods. Talking about food this way encourages kids to try something new. “This cucumber is crunchy and juicy.”

Help your child to recognize when they are hungry or full. Knowing that you respect their body and trust them to know when to start or stop eating can strengthen the feeding relationship. “Has your tummy filled up?” “Does that rumbly noise mean you’re still hungry?”

Use phrases that let your child know they are in control of how much they eat.

“Your body knows how much you need to eat.” “Eat as much as you need to. Just be sure to chew your food well and enjoy it.”

Similarly, teach them that family meals are about family. “I understand you are full, but this is our time together. Everyone is expected to stay at the table until mealtime is over.”

Teach your child to respect other people’s food preferences. “You don’t have to eat it, but please don’t say yuck about something others enjoy eating.” In my house, we say “Don’t yuck my yum.”

Final Thoughts on Parental Feeding Styles and the Feeding DOR

Every child is unique and requires a different amount of food, depending on the day. There is no one way or amount to feed your child. It will be beneficial for parents to adopt a democratic, responsive feeding style. This will help to let go of the tight control and stress that inherently comes with mealtime struggles. Everyone at the table will benefit. Your family can enjoy their food and children learn to like the foods everyone is eating.

Using the division of responsibility and feeding best practices will help provide reassurance to your child that they will be adequately fed. This builds the trust they have with you as a caretaker. No matter your child’s weight, using a democratic parent feeding style and the division of responsibility in feeding can help your child become the eater they were meant to be, while also increasing their diet variety. As long as the child is following their growth curve near the same percentile they are growing well. Feed as if you were not worried about weight. Do not restrict a child’s intake at the table or provide some members of the family with foods that are off-limits to another.

Include more fruit, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, and lean proteins that research shows are beneficial for everyone’s health and longevity. People who eat more health-promoting foods feel better, want to exercise more, have lower rates of chronic disease, and have more self-confidence.

Expect some hiccups. Learning and implementing new skills is difficult, and it takes time. Your child will test you and the “new rules.” Over time, they will become accustomed to the changes and become relaxed. Feeding can be more pleasant and you and your child(ren) can be happier. If you want to learn more about implementing these tools into your family so that you can stop worrying about what your child eats and enjoy family meals, partner with a dietitian to strategize a plan that will work for your family.

If you are in need of professional help to combat your child(ren)’s picky eating, contact me.

This post was published with help from Rachel’s dietetic intern, Charity Garland.

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