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How can parents help their children to eat well?

YINI - nurturing healthy eathing habits in children: the role of families

Childhood is the prime time for laying the foundations of positive and life-long healthy eating habits. A report from a group of experts, Nurturing Children’s Healthy Eating, shows the key role of families in building good eating habits in children.
Every month, we will bring you a summary post, highlighting some of the key messages taken from this report, in order to help families nurture healthier eating habits.

Children depend on their parents and caregivers for their food choices and behaviours; the way parents feed their children therefore has a direct impact on the development of children’s eating habits.

About how to feed your children…

Feeding practices can be categorized according to the ways in which parents encourage their children’s eating habits and routines. Experts divide the overall parental approach to feeding into two parts:

  • Feeding style: the attitude and emotional context parents can create during mealtime.
  • Feeding practices: the specific behaviours that parents use to get their children to eat.

Both feeding style and practices have been associated with factors relating to children’s nutrition such as children’s eating habits and BMI. Experts advise parents to try and adopt a positive parenting approach: a set of specific feeding styles and behaviours allowing parents to get their children to eat healthily in a calm and relaxed environment for good child development and to put them on the road to healthy eating habits right from the start…

“Through support and encouragement, positive parental feeding can set children on the road to healthy eating right from the start.”

How to adopt a positive feeding style

Parental feeding styles can be categorized according to the levels of control a parent places on their child’s eating and of responsiveness with which the parent expresses their demands.  According to experts, four feeding styles can be mainly defined:

  • Authoritative style, represented mostly by parents who have reasonable nutritional expectations and sensitivity towards the child’s needs
  • Authoritarian style, represented mostly by parents who can be highly controlling with little sensitivity towards the child
  • Indulgent, represented mostly by highly responsive parents who provide little structure
  • Uninvolved, represented mostly by parents who have a tendency to not care what their children eat and/or those who cannot provide structure

Studies suggest that a supportive and informative approach to feeding through an authoritative style is associated with healthier eating behaviours such as good energy intake regulation and less tendency to under- or over-eating than with other feeding styles.

With this positive feeding style, parents guide children with warmth and explanations, setting reasonable demands and clear limits while remaining sensitive to children’s needs. In this way, parents help to build children’s knowledge about food and healthy eating habits for the future.

“Children develop healthier eating habits if parents set limits with warmth and guidance”

Some useful everyday tips for a positive feeding style

  • Communicate: Set limits with warmth and guidance, providing explanations and information.
  • Identify the child’s needs: Be sensitive to children’s needs, pay attention to their hunger and satiety signals in order not to impair their ability to self-regulate.
  • Make healthy foods attractive: Emphasize the pleasure of eating healthy food and don’t just tell children that it is good for them, because children could associate healthy foods with not tasting nice. Make sure healthy foods you serve to children are tasty and enjoyable for them.

How to adopt positive feeding practices

Along with adopting a positive parental feeding style, the impact of feeding behaviours is important too and can encourage healthy eating habits and routines in children. Studies suggests that positive practices (environment encouraging child competence, regular mealtimes, parental modelling of healthy eating, access to healthy food, etc.) are associated with healthy eating in children from pre-school to adolescence.

In practice, being a parent is an everyday challenge and knowing what feeding practices and behaviours to adopt is neither easy nor intuitive. So we have put together some feeding practices to favour and to avoid, in order to give children a better chance of adopting heathy eating habits.

Some positive feeding practices to adopt:

  • Be a role model: Children will be more likely to eat healthy foods if they see their parents eating them and liking them, so set a good example!
  • Be adventurous: Give them as much of a variety of healthy foods as possible – the more foods they try, the more foods they will like. Try to offer a variety of foods, flavours and textures.
  • Don’t give up! Repeated exposure is a powerful tool for encouraging children to eat healthy foods. The more they try it, the more they are likely to like it. However, if a child hates a particular food, it is important to respect that: we all have some foods we just can’t face!

Some feeding behaviours such as restrictions, rewards with food or pressurizing to eat can impair children’s abilities to regulate the food they eat in terms of the right amount and type and make them more vulnerable to over-eating.

Some feeding practices to avoid:       

  • Avoid food restriction. Restricting some foods could seem a good way to limit the consumption of unhealthy foods. However, it can have some counterproductive effects such as fuelling the desire to eat the forbidden food, over-eating and adiposity.
  • Food is not a reward. Using food as a reward could seem an effective way to make children do some things they don’t like, but it makes them more likely to eat even when they are not hungry.
  • Keep calm! Don’t put pressure on children, if they don’t want to eat their vegetables, don’t force them to. Maybe it is just not the right day and you will be more successful tomorrow. Pressuring children can lead to complete rejection of the food and has been associated with fussy eating behaviours such as eating fewer fruits and vegetables.

Appropriate food “moments”?

Breakfast time can be a useful time to try out the feeding styles and practices mentioned before, through a tasty, shared and nutrient-dense meal combining whole grains, fruits and yogurt. By offering nutrient-dense and healthy foods through a shared mealtime, parents can allow their children to create their own breakfast bowl and therefore encourage autonomy and the pleasure of eating by making them associate healthy foods with pleasure.

YINI - how to prepare a healthy tasty breakfast bowl

Studies have shown that yogurt consumption is associated with a higher intake of healthy foods such as fruit and whole grains. It is a logical vehicle for improving both breakfast and the overall nutrient quality of children’s diets. Yogurt consumption is also associated with healthy eating habits, showing that yogurt is a valuable tool for introducing healthy habits in children.

Children’s food choices and behaviours are influenced by parents’ own feeding practices and styles. By being positive and informative in their parenting style and by repeatedly exposing children to a wide variety of healthy foods, parents provide their children with precious support in building healthy eating habits. In practice, yogurt can be a valuable tool in helping parents to introduce healthy foods into their children’s diet.

Next month, we will explore this subject from a “role-modelling angle”, seeing how family members and caregivers are role models for children… Stay tuned!

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