As childhood obesity becomes more common in Thailand, I get many questions from concerned parents about the best approaches to encourage healthy eating behavior in their children. Establishing a healthy relationship with food in childhood is incredibly important because habits developed as children are very difficult to break as adults. My experience has been that most parents believe their children do not eat enough, but in most cases, the kids are just fine. This parental anxiety about food can be harmful for our children.
Recent guidance from an April 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics sheds some light on this important subject. This study suggests that controlling parenting styles may keep children from developing healthy eating habits. The study found that not only are controlling, food-related, parenting practices common; they don’t help teens maintain a healthy weight. The researchers found that parents often encourage teens of healthy weight to finish all their food; this puts pressure on kids to eat more even after they feel full. At the same time, parents to overweight teens ban some foods and encourage restriction. Neither practice is proven to improve teens’ habits nor improve their health. What we really want is for our children to self-regulate their food intake and growing evidence suggests that controlling parental habits make developing this essential skill more difficult. So, we need to encourage moderation rather than over consumption and emphasize healthful food choices rather than restrictive eating patterns.
Some Thoughtful Eating Guidelines
- Eat together. The best education we give our children comes from modeling healthy habits and behaviors, and sharing food is a powerful act of bonding. Make eating together with your children a top priority from infancy through adolescence and share at least one sit-down one meal every day.
- Eat the same foods. There’s no reason to cook special food for your children. Involve them in the preparation of your shared meal, eat the same foods, and share your love of eating.
- Divide responsibilities. Remember that children eat for themselves, not for their parents. Parents are responsible for buying and serving healthy food but infants, children, and teens have to choose what to eat and how much to eat. Never try to force a child to eat! If they don’t eat much, wait until the next meal to offer food and discourage snacking between meals.
- Create a positive atmosphere around food. Mealtime is not the right time to hold serious family discussions. Reduce the pressure and distractions. Turn off the TV during meals. Let your children feel their fullness and stop eating when they feel full.
- Eat when your body is hungry and stop when your body is full. Infants do this naturally when breastfeeding and when starting solid foods. Encourage that natural habit throughout toddler to teen years. This skill of responding to natural hunger and normal cues of fullness will be a hugely important for your children for their entire lives. Stop insisting how much your children should eat and let them learn to feel hunger and respond to fullness by stopping eating.
- Don’t make children clean their plate. For children with normal development and health, there is no reason to pressure children to eat. And don’t reward children for finishing their dinner with dessert. This only encourages children to eat past their point of fullness.
- Serve your meals on smaller plates. This helps us control portion sizes and ultimately reduce the number of calories eaten. A recent study found that when children use larger, adult-sized plates, they serve themselves and consume much more food. Using smaller plates will help them learn to control their own portion sizes and will also make it less likely for you to insist your kids clean their plate since they’ll do so naturally on a smaller plate.