"Don't praise or criticise your child for what they eat" is one of the principles central to EAF. This may seem surprising. Most parents would agree that the way to get your child to perform a desired behaviour is through the use of sanctions and rewards, whether that reward is something tangible or comes in the form of praise. This is such a fundamental tenet of modern parenting, endorsed by many 'experts' including TV's Supernanny. However, some people are starting to challenge this idea. If this is something you're interested in, check out Jane Evans' explanation of her 'tuning in' approach. Whatever approach you take in your general parenting, I would argue that rewarding and praising 'good' eating is never helpful. Here's why. If you praise your child for eating well, you are giving her the message that eating is an activity you want her to perform in a certain way. Once your child sees eating in this light, she can make decisions about what she eats based on her need to get a reaction from you.
It is completely normal for children to experiment with boundaries and to try to wrestle a little control from their parents. This is part of their attempt to understand their world and to feel safe, because they need to know what the limits are. Any behaviour that you want from your child is potential fodder for a power battle. It's extremely easy for a child to begin using food as a means of testing boundaries if they sense that parents very much want them to eat certain things.
If a child gets an emotional reaction from her parent, be that positive or negative, that is a kind of 'pay-off' for her. This explains the fact that children prefer negative attention to no attention - this is counter-intuitive, but true. So if you respond to your child's eating with praise or criticism, with anxiety, anger or even happiness, your are encouraging your child to make decisions about what she eats for emotional reasons.
A child should make choices about what she eats based on physiological cues, not external pressure. This will help her self-regulate, or listen to her body. When emotions and power struggles enter the equation, a child is less likely to be directed by appetite and more likely to be using food as a means of striving for attention and control. With EAF, eating and feelings are separated. This fusion and confusion of eating and feelings is a big part of adult comfort eating. In fact, research shows that children who are better at self-regulating, or listening to their body's cues, are less likely to have weight problems 1. Your child should be eating because her body is telling her to, not to please you.
So what's the alternative?
If you've decided not to praise or reward your child for eating well, what are you left with? Well, I'm not suggesting that what your child is eating becomes the elephant in the room. Instead, tune in to your child - you can comment that she seems to be really enjoying her cabbage, really listen to her when she tells you what she likes about it. Enjoy the social aspect of mealtimes and instead of praising what your child puts in her mouth, give her warm and positive attention by engaging with her, talking to her, listening to her.
With EAF, eating gets re-framed - it is seen as a natural, every day activity, not a behaviour to be modified. You wouldn't praise your child for finishing an ice cream. Don't praise her for finishing her greens!