Good news for parents of fussy eaters: You didn't create them. In an effort to find out what drives unhealthy eating patterns among children, researchers from University College London compared children's eating behaviors to their mothers' reactions to said behaviors and found that parents are usually responding to (not the cause of) fussy eating or overindulgence.
The details: The authors collected questionnaire data from 244 mothers of children between the ages of 7 and 9. The moms filled out one survey related to their children's eating behaviors, agreeing or disagreeing to statements that measured how a child responds to food (for instance, "If allowed to, my child would eat too much"), their child's enjoyment of food, and whether their child ever avoids food (for instance, "My child gets full before his/her meal is finished" and "My child takes more than 30 minutes to finish a meal."). The second survey related to the mother's feeding habits, agreeing or disagreeing to statements like "If my child says 'I'm not hungry' I try to get him/her to eat anyway," or "If I did not guide or regulate my child's eating, he/she would eat too much of his/her favorite foods."
The authors found that what the mothers usually wanted from their children yielded the exact opposite result: Mothers who put more pressure on their children to eat were more likely to report having children who felt full before the end of a meal, ate slowly, were "fussy" eaters, or didn't enjoy food very much in general. On the other hand, mothers who were more restrictive of what their children ate (those who agreed strongly with the statement "If I did not guide or regulate my child's eating, he/she would eat too much of his/her favorite foods") were more likely to have kids who they reported would eat too much if allowed.
What it means: If you have a fussy eater or a child who overeats, it probably isn't your fault. While this study doesn't rule out the possibility that kids are simply eating a certain way just to assert a little control over the dinner table, Laura Webber, doctoral student in the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London and lead author of the study, says that most likely the child's behavior is driving, not responding to, her mother's reaction. Eating behaviors are usually inherited, Webber says, so chances are, a fussy eater isn't being fussy simply to get a rise out of her mother (or overeating just because she was told not to). Essentially, she adds, "it is important that mothers do not blame themselves for their children's eating behaviors."
When parents label their kids "picky" or "fussy," the children pick up on that, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, registered dietician with the American Dietetic Association. "Then it becomes a license to not try new foods," she says. If you're the parent of a fussy eater, serve food in a very matter-of-fact way, she says. "Have no emotion on your face." If the child refuses it, just take it away and try serving it again in a few days. Don't beg and plead with them to try it, she adds.
3. Feed children when they're hungry.
"The number one tip I tell parents is to make sure your kids are hungry when serving a meal, snack, or whenever you want them to eat nutritious foods," Krieger says. "It seems like common sense, but it's amazing what kids will try when they're hungry." It also helps teach children that it's OK to be hungry so they're less likely to eat constantly, or when they're bored.
By the same token, she says, watch your child's liquid intake. "Anything that offers calories without a lot of nutrition (like lemonades) can fill up tummies," she says. Keep children from drinking any kind of caloric beverage two hours before a meal. If necessary, make the kitchen off limits during certain times of the day so children won't fill up on either drinks or snacks before meals.
4. Plan after-dinner activities.
Boredom is a powerful motivator for overeaters, says Krieger. "If you notice that a child wants to eat an hour after dinner, when it isn't physically possible that they're hungry, it can be more of a cry out for something to do," she says. So instead of arguing with your child about the fact that she just ate, take her outside for a walk, or have some other activity lined up as a distraction.
5. Make dinners a family affair.
"Encourage children to help make their lunch or dinner," Krieger says. "Kids are more likely to try and eat more fruits and vegetables when they make them themselves." And planning meals together also helps teach kids about portion control. When you do sit down at the table, make it a pleasant experience, she says. Don't fight over how much a child is or isn't eating, because then "It turns into a power struggle, and it's not worth it." Most important, be a good role model. Parents who eat healthy foods will set good examples for their children.