Does your child eat vegetables like they are going out of style? Or do they snub any food that even resembles a fruit or vegetable? Children often vary widely in their food preferences and eating habits. Depending on their temperament or preferences, they may be open to a variety of foods or stick to only a few favorites. As parents, we can support and encourage healthy eating habits in our children, but we cannot completely control how they eat. Let’s look at some ways that we can end food battles in our families while still supporting the development of healthy eating habits in our children.
Table of Contents
Why Healthy Eating Matters
We all recognize the importance of helping children establish healthy eating habits. Across the globe, we see the consequences of unhealthy eating in disease and health statistics. Today, the rate of obesity is at 41 percent in the United States1 and 13 percent worldwide.2 The rate of obesity worldwide has tripled since 1975.2 Additionally, the leading causes of death in many countries, especially the United States, are obesity-related such as heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and stroke.1
Helping children develop healthy eating habits now can serve them well their entire lives. Staying at a healthy weight and eating a balanced diet cuts an individual’s risk of obesity and cardiovascular disease.3 For most of us, the issue usually isn’t knowing what children should eat but how to encourage them to actually eat those items. Many of us struggle with making sure our children eat enough healthy foods and avoid the unhealthy ones.
Ineffective Strategies for Supporting Healthy Eating
In our strive to encourage our children to eat healthfully, we sometimes attempt parenting strategies towards eating that actually undermine our goals. Scholars have begun to research the types of strategies that help or hinder the establishment of healthy eating habits in children. Some of the approaches we reflexively try with our children don’t actually help their healthy eating:
Pressuring/Controlling: For many of us, our first instinct as parents when it comes to our children’s eating is pressure or control. Especially when our children are young, we feel that if we can control almost every morsel that enters their mouth, we can set them up for a lifetime of healthy eating. Unfortunately, this desire to control or pressure children to eat certain items often backfires. Research finds that tightly controlling children’s eating or pressuring them to eat is often associated with more unhealthy eating.4 Similarly, pressuring is not found to increase healthy food consumption.4 As with many aspects of parenting, attempting to manage our children’s eating with an iron fist does not seem to foster the healthy eating habits we would like to encourage.
Permissive/Laissez Faire: On the other end of the spectrum, some parents tend to take a “hands-off” approach to their children’s eating. They may feel that their children will naturally adopt healthy eating or perhaps are not very concerned about their children’s food choices. Although some children may naturally adopt healthy eating habits, this “laissez faire” approach does not always yield those results. Some research finds that permissive parenting is associated with a lack of structure or rules around mealtimes and eating habits.5 The result is often poor eating habits and a tendency towards excess weight in children.5
Food as a Reward: Another common parenting practice when it comes to children’s eating is to use food as a reward. Even as adults, many of us use food as a “reward” when we complete a big project or meet a goal. In children, however, using food as a reward for good behavior or other goals can have unintended consequences. Oftentimes, when parents use food as a reward for children, the chosen food tends to be of the unhealthy type. This pattern, in the long run, encourages children to seek unhealthy foods as they are associated with positivity and value.4
Research-Backed Strategies for Fostering Healthy Eating
Now that we are aware of some of the parenting strategies that do not tend to enhance our children’s healthy eating, let’s consider some ideas that do support these healthy habits.
Structure and Guidance: In contrast to the extreme ends of the parenting spectrum⏤overly controlling or permissive⏤the middle ground of authoritative parenting strikes an effective balance. Authoritative parenting, in which parents provide structure and guidance around eating habits, seems to support children’s adoption of more healthy eating. This parenting approach tends to be associated with more structure around mealtimes.5 Additionally, parents who use this approach try to increase the availability of healthy foods while limiting access to unhealthy ones. Instead of strictly controlling what children eat or pressuring them to eat healthy foods, they instead adopt a teaching approach to help children understand the importance of healthy food choices.4
Modeling: When it comes to parenting, modeling is perhaps our most powerful tool. This is especially true when it comes to fostering healthy eating habits. Modeling eating healthy foods, correct portion size and the family context of eating can be a crucial aspect of establishing healthy habits in children. Research backs up this idea by showing that structured practices around eating and parental modeling of healthy eating habits are linked to healthier diets among children.6
Repeated Exposure to New Foods: In terms of encouraging children to eat specific healthy foods, research clearly points to the idea that repeated exposure to foods is key. This is perhaps surprising to many of us who know from first-hand experience that children often turn down vegetables or fruits and seem vehement in their decision not to eat them. However, studies find that it often takes 5–15 exposures to a food for children to adopt it.7 These new taste exposures do not have to be whole servings of the food; even small tastes can help open children up to food they haven’t enjoyed previously.7
Healthy Eating for Life
Although establishing healthy eating habits in children can take a lot of patience and persistence, the results are well worth the effort. Fostering healthy eating habits early can set children up for a lifetime of smart food choices that can impact their health, longevity, and well-being.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (2022) Adult Obesity Facts. CDC, https://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/adult.html
- World Health Organization (2021) Obesity and overweight. WHO, https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/obesity-and-overweight
- American Heart Association. (2020) Healthy Eating Behaviors in Childhood May Reduce the Risk of Adult Obesity and Heart Disease. ScienceDaily, https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2020/05/200511092923.htm
- Yee, A.Z.H., Lwin, M.O. & Ho, S.S. (2017) The Influence of Parental Practices on Child Promotive and Preventive Food Consumption Behaviors: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. International Journal of Behaviorial Nutrition and Physical Activity, 14, 47, https://link.springer.com/article/10.1186/s12966-017-0501-3#Sec23
- Lopez, N. V., Schembre, S., Belcher, B. R., O’Connor, S., Maher, J. P., Arbel, R., Margolin, G., & Dunton, G. F. (2018). Parenting Styles, Food-Related Parenting Practices, and Children’s Healthy Eating: A Mediation Analysis to Examine Relationships Between Parenting and Child Diet. Appetite, 128, 205–213, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7529118/
- Haines, J., Haycraft, E., Lytle, L., Nicklaus, S., Kok, F., Merdji, M., Fisberg, M., Moreno, L., Goulet, O., and Hughes, S. (2019) Nurturing Children’s Healthy Eating: Position Statement. Appetite, Volume 137, p. 124-133, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666318313412
- Healthy Eating Research (2021) Evidence-Based Recommendations and Best Practices for Promoting Healthy Eating Behaviors in Children 2 to 8 Years: Guidelines for Researchers and Practitioners. HER, https://healthyeatingresearch.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/10/her-heg-summary.pdf