Parents and caregivers influence children’s eating through the type of foods they provide, how meals are structured, their parenting style, role modeling and the family and social environment. Positive early childhood experiences regarding food and the social environment in which children eat are critical to the development of healthy eating habits later in life.
Here are some great Q&A’s from top medical professionals and online resources to get you on the right path:
How does parental role modeling influence the eating habits of children?
Parents can influence children’s eating in a positive or negative way by role modeling:
During the early years, children learn what, when, and how much to eat based on the family culture, attitudes, beliefs, and practices around food and eating.
What parents eat sets an example for what children will eat.
Children who observe their parents dieting may diet as well and may believe this is normal eating behaviour. Dieting patterns are similar in families, especially among mothers and daughters.
Does pressuring children to eat and providing rewards help children eat better?
No! Pressuring a child to eat or providing rewards to get them to eat healthier foods actually has the opposite effect. It may also lead to weight problems in children and adolescents.
Insisting children eat certain foods may actually cause them to eat less. Many of the foods that parents encourage children to consume more of, and more often, are vegetables and fruit. Studies show that parents’ encouragement to eat more of these foods has been associated with children’s preference for fewer vegetables and fruit.
Putting strict limits on food perceived by parents to be “less healthy” or “bad” (i.e. high sugar, high fat, high calorie foods) can lead to overeating and more desire for these foods. It’s better to buy fewer of these foods instead of trying to control intake.
Why should parents be concerned about the food their children eat?
When children eat well and get the nutrients they need, they have a better chance of having a healthy weight. Being well nourished also supports healthy growth and development and gives children the energy needed to carry out their daily activities. During the school years, eating well can help children perform better at school.
What types of foods should parents and caregivers provide?
Parents need to be vigilant and provide healthy food choices most of the time for meals and snacks so that children will become used to these as the “normal” food choices. When healthy foods are the usual choice, and when children see their parents eating these foods, a child has a better chance of eating well and will perceive these foods to be the normal or usual choice. When unhealthy foods are the norm, a child may not learn how to eat well or develop healthy eating habits.
Parents are responsible for providing appropriate food choices that meet the energy and nutrients needs of their growing and developing child. A variety of food guides are available online and outline the kinds and amounts of foods that infants, toddlers and children two years of age and over should eat.
Foods to include are foods from each of the four food groups; vegetables and fruit, grain products, milk and alternatives, meat and alternatives.
Foods to limit are foods that are low in nutrients and high in calories, fat, sugar and salt.
How does meal structure influence children’s eating habits?
Young children (ages one to five years) have small stomachs and high energy needs and should have small, frequent meals throughout the day. Providing regularly scheduled meals and snacks to preschoolers instills security and comfort around food, provides energy as needed, and helps develop healthy eating patterns.
Having regular meals establishes a healthy routine, which is especially important as children get older. Eating meals together as a family has been linked to healthier food choices in children and adolescents, such as more fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and less fried foods or soda.
The bottom line!
Most children, if provided access to a variety of foods from each of the food groups, will consume the nutrients and energy they need. However, if they do not have access to foods from all food groups on a regular basis, they will not be able to consume a nutritionally adequate diet. Providing healthy food choices is the parent/caregiver’s responsibility. The child needs to be given responsible for how much he or she eats. Forcing a child to eat can upset their natural appetite control system and may lead to overeating and possibly overweight. Parents’ attempts to control food choices, as well as providing rewards may have the opposite effect. It’s important for parents to support children in developing healthy food choices by providing healthy choices as the normal choice and being positive role models for healthy eating.
Maureen Cubbon is Manager Marketing, Communications, Health & Wellness