So you’ve put the family meal on the table; several components, and at least something every family member can eat. Now comes the hard part. Sit back, relax, enjoy your meal, and let everyone serve and eat what they want from what is available. Sounds like the easy part, right?
You would think. But after years of feeling our own pressures to get our kids to eat a certain amount of vegetables each day, or protein, or even just to eat, pressuring can be the hardest thing to let go. A little encouragement to eat one more bite, a little more this, a little more that, with the good intention of making sure kids get a balanced meal and enough food to fill their bellies. What’s the harm?
Studies on the subject show a variety of findings. First off, children who are pressured to eat are more likely to be picky eaters. This could be more or less evident depending on the temperament of the child. Those who are more stubborn may refuse simply because they are being pressured.
Another thing to keep in mind is that healthy children are born with the ability to regulate their hunger and fullness. Pressuring children to eat one more bite when they say they are full encourages children to override these signals. This could cause them to lose touch with these cues for life, leading to unhealthy eating behaviors and weight gain over time.
Lastly, children’s eating behaviors are very sporadic; they may be very hungry one day or one meal, and eat next to nothing the next. Parents should understand that this is very normal and trust their child’s body to tell them when to eat, stop eating, or not eat at all.
Pressure at mealtimes also leads to tension and stress at the dinner table, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid. We want our children to have a healthy relationship with food, enjoy a variety of foods for a lifetime, and learn to try new foods. Family meals should be seen by all as a pleasant time to enjoy each others company and good food, even though ‘good food’ might mean something different to each of us. Tension and pressure at the dinner table may lead to unpleasant feelings about eating, and unnecessary stress for the child. Most typical children want to learn to eat and enjoy a variety of foods, but it takes time and repeated exposure for this to happen. Pressure, or even ‘gentle suggestions’ (depending on the child), may lead to the result we want in the short term, but usually will not help children to truly enjoy variety in the long run.
Another form of pressure is bribing. This technique works like a charm in the short term, so that children can get the reward they seek. A recent study showed that indeed children ate more fruits and vegetables when offered an incentive, but that when the incentive was taken away, the level of fruit and vegetable consumption went back down to where it began.
Bribing with dessert, such as promising ice cream if a child finishes their broccoli, also sends a poor message. By withholding dessert in this way we are telling our children that vegetables must be so bad that we need a reward in order to eat them. What we want to teach them is that vegetables can be just as delicious as any other foods and are no less valuable or desirable than sweets or any other foods.
Beware of pressure in it’s many forms. We tend to think of pressure as negative, such as restricting food or criticizing. But pressure can also come in a positive form, such as praising and encouragement. Both positive and negative pressure can cause undue stress in the feeding relationship.
I’d love to hear your views on this subject!