Does your parenting style affect your child's eating?

Photo from Daily Mail
Photo from Daily Mail










I read an article from the US news channel CBS the other day, about Canadian research that explores the influence of parenting style on childhood obesity. The findings were stark:

"Kids with demanding parents who are rigid about rules, stingy with affection and won't discuss limits are far more likely to be obese than children whose parents practice a more balanced parenting style..."


This called to mind similar research I had read  into how parenting style can impact upon picky eating.  One study* found that, put simply, the nicer the atmosphere at the table, the less picky the child is likely to be. Another looked at how families interact and concluded that the levels of conflict at the table and how controlling parents were influenced how much children consumed, with higher levels of control leading to an increase in fussiness and food rejection**.

I think it's really interesting that the Canadian research pointed to the fact that children who are not used to having the freedom to discuss and question things (and are therefore unlikely to be in the habit of being empowered to make their own decisions) are more likely to be obese.  And this is where I would speculate that these different findings converge -  when children are not able to eat in a relaxed environment  and when parents are trying to control children's eating choices, food starts to get used dysfunctionally.

Food and Feelings

For some children , they may overeat and gain excess weight. For others, they may choose to reject food. It's as though when parents interrupt the  child's ability to self-regulate by being excessively controlling, children begin to make choices about what to eat for emotional rather than physiological reasons.


Self -regulation is such an important concept to understand when dealing with a picky eater (or a child who is clinically obese)  that it merits it's own dedicated post... (it's on my list!) To summarise, self-regulation in relation to eating is the process whereby a child listens to her body's cues (hunger or fullness) and decides to eat or stop eating as appropriate. When a child eats in response to external cues such as feeling sad or wanting to gain a sense of control,  healthy self-regulation goes out the window.

What can we take from this?

  • Do your best to engender a positive, relaxed atmosphere at the table
  • Don't try to control what your child eats
  • Be relatively laid back about manners
  • Think about your parenting style - is it rigid and authoritarian or are you authoritative and keen to develop your child's faculty for independent thought?

To find out more about the distinction between an authoritative and authoritarian parenting style, read this simple overview by Kendra Cherry

*D.Burnier, L.Dubois, M. Girard (2011) Arguments at Mealtime and Child Energy Intake, Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, Vol. 43, No. 6, pp. 473-481

**B. Carruth, J. Skinner, K. Houck, J.Moran III, F. Coletta & D. Ott (1998) The Phenomenon of “Picky Eater”: A Behavioral Marker in Eating Patterns of Toddlers. Journal of the American College of Nutritionists, Vol.17, No. 2, pp. 180-186

Picky eating and the H-word...

toddler snacks
toddler snacks

Here in the UK, our toddlers are the proud winners of the prize for the highest levels of picky eating in whole of whole of Europe. I'm interested in how we achieved that accolade - I've yet to explore eating patterns in other European countries (it's on my bucket list) but I have a sneaking suspicion it might have something to do with hunger. As parents, we  feel that it is part of our job to make sure that our children never get hungry. We never leave the house without a snack,  no car journey can get under way until raisins  have been distributed and every playgroup in the land is punctuated by snack-time.

Children should experience hunger - they should sit down to meals hungry and get up from them full. It's part of the natural rhythm of the day. I'm not talking about the kind of hunger that is born of deprivation, I'm thinking of hunger in the context of appropriate meals being offered at appropriate times.

Many health professionals advocate  two snacks a day for young children and that's fine, IF they are also hungry at mealtimes. My message is simple - if your child is refusing food at breakfast, lunch or dinner, cut out the snacks. In fact,  I've had dramatically more feedback from readers of War & Peas about my stance on snacking than on any other aspect of my approach. It really does work.  So much so, that I'm going to be having a dedicated snack week on the blog, featuring a guest post about 'snacktivism' - one US mother's fight against American snack culture.

Snacking, however, is not the whole problem, it is simply symptomatic of our urge to stop our children feeling hungry. There are several reasons why we do this - children's behaviour is easier to manage when they are not hungry. Food gets used to entertain - bored children are hard work, so giving them  something to eat keeps them occupied.  Mini-cheddars are handed out like ritalin. Eat this and be quiet. Research into mothers' confidence about their parenting abilities showed that the less confident the mother, the more likely she was to try to soothe her child  with food *.

At the other extreme,  we give children snacks to show we love them - our warm feelings become transmuted into shiny pouches of cleverly marketed organic purees and weird strips of fruit-glue in 'fun, peelable strips'... And we give them snacks because, at a very basic level, we don't want them to  experience discomfort.

This is a tough one, especially for parents who may have experienced hunger born of neglect or extreme poverty when they were growing up.  But appropriate hunger is good. Appetite is your friend - if your child can learn to listen to her body's cues, she will be better at self-regulating and will learn when to eat and when to stop eating according to what her body needs. There are clear links between poor self-regulation and obesity  later in life. If you mask your child's  appetite by letting her graze throughout the day, it will be hard for her to learn how to listen to her body.

If your child is a picky eater, often refusing food at mealtimes, get her weight and growth checked. If  she is healthy, try cutting out the snacks for one week.  Put up with some bad moods and complaining and prepare to be amazed.

*C. Stifter, S. Anzman-Frasca , L. Birch, K. Voegtline (2011)  Parent use of food to soothe infant/toddler distress and child weight status. An exploratory study Appetite, Vol. 57(3), pp. 693-9