Food intake in early childhood is largely dependent on parents, carers and early childhood centres. Do most parents want their children to eat healthily? Absolutely!
Does this mean most children have completely healthy diets? Not really!
If you want to listen to this post instead you can do that at The Early Childhood Research Podcast.
Please note: this post is based on recent research conducted in Australia, the UK and the US. You can find the specific articles I used listed at the end of this post. You can find my other research posts here.
Don’t forget to scroll down for the free Little Healthy Eating Books!
Parent food goals
According to research most parents state that one of their goals is for their little ones to eat a healthy diet. However, the habits and practicalities of life often get in the way, leading to a completely different outcome.
What do we as parents find gets in the way of our healthy eating plans?
- Fussy eaters
- A busy lifestyle: plus exhaustion and stress
- Food costs
- Cultural expectations: that is, the kinds of food, and the amount of food that is served
- Wanting to reward or indulge
One piece of research from about 15 years ago found that the most common vegetable eaten by both adults and 15 month-olds was…. drumroll… potatoes.
And in what form? … double drumroll…. French fries!
Ouch! Valuing healthy practices is much easier than implementing healthy practices!
Parent feeding goals can be
- health-oriented: focused on child health, natural ingredients, no additives or artificial ingredients.
- or non-health-oriented: for eg, cost, speed of preparation, familiarity, a child’s mood.
A parent’s highest priority will determine the actual foods kids eat. For eg, mothers who don’t think about food as preventing disease tend to give their kids less fruit and more fat.
Research has found that it’s our habits that win out as parents: therefore what steps can we take to improve those habits for our kids? For eg, when we’re exhausted do we have a 10 min healthy recipe we can create with whatever is in our fridge and pantry, or do we pick up the phone and order pizza?
According to parents 25-40% of infants and toddlers experience feeding problems. This generally means picky or fussy eating but can also mean refusing to eat particular foods, low appetite, infantile anorexia and more… and this can affect the whole family and make mealtimes stressful. Mothers of picky eaters tend to be stressed and can struggle with depression, blaming themselves for their child’s issues. They also often feel isolated, so group support can be helpful, somewhere mothers can express their emotions and not feel they are being judged. Support groups are better when parents are from similar ethnic/social groups, as parents are likely to be more trusting and open about their struggles.
Fussy eating is not generally serious and doesn’t usually mean a child is underweight, so a bit of support at this time can do wonders.
Looking for help? Check out the blog Crib to Table. I highly recommend it as a place where you’ll find more information and practical advice for developing healthy eaters. The writer, Danaye Barahona, is working on her PhD in this area and also has a young son. In other words, her blog posts are based on the best research available, but are do-able and practical because she’s a busy mum, too. I especially like her posts on fast and healthy recipes, how (and when) to introduce new foods, and how to manage fussy eating.
Need ideas for cooking with your kids?: Jennifer from Study at Home Mama has a series called 31 Days of Kids Kitchen Activities. You’ll find all sorts of ideas there!
Introducing new foods
Research has found that children need up to 15 exposures to a new food before they’ll ‘trust’ it and eat it. And then another 10-15 before they’ll like it. (Can anyone say perseverance?)
Around the age of 2 neophobia (fear of the new) is a normal developmental response. Many parents are unaware of this and so don’t realise the importance of persevering introducing foods so that they become more familiar and the child’s anxiety (or phobia) about it can decrease. Instead of taking new foods easily as they did when younger, they now resist. Since the majority of parents only make 5 attempts at introducing a new food toddlers diets are being unnecessarily limited.
Parent modeling is crucial, so if parents don’t eat a particular food very often, it won’t be seen as normal by the child. Peers can also help, however peers who reject fruits and vegetables are a very strong influence and can defeat a parent’s efforts so this is something to be careful of.
Apparently young children are more likely to eat foods their mothers ate while pregnant, so if we’re going to insist our child be the Queen of Kale, we’d better make sure we’re munching on it during pregnancy!
Oh… and by the way… children do not have trouble adapting to the taste of fat, sugar and salt, which is probably why it’s so easy to resort to those when we’re desperate.
Pressuring kids to eat
Pressuring children to eat can increase their neophobia and make life even more difficult. On the other hand, 83% of younger children will eat more when prompted by their mothers, so that they are eating past the point of feeling satisfied. This can affect a child’s ability to recognize and respond to feelings of hunger and fullness and lead to weight gain. One research paper found a direct correlation between the number of prompts mothers gave their children to eat more and the number of calories consumed. (That is, mothers who prompted too much caused their children to eat way too much). Children given larger portions at each meal also ate more than they needed.
Under school age, you ask? Isn’t that too young to be obsessing?
Apparently most parents think of body image as a negative issue that pops up if their kids become overweight.
However, academics and early childhood professionals describe body image as a child’s thoughts and feelings about their body and appearance. And being a healthy weight is no guarantee that a child will have a positive body image. According to research up to 59% of 5-8 year olds would like a slimmer figure and 10% of thin or underweight children also want to be thinner.
Therefore it’s important for parents to be aware of body image issues from a young age. Instead of thinking of it as a negative concept, encouraging children to feel positive about their amazing bodies while they’re still very young can be enormously helpful.
There is a strong relationship between feeling good about our bodies and developing long-term healthy behaviours.
Feeding strategies are the approaches we take to control what, how much, or when our children eat.
Some strategies build a positive self-image and relationship with food, and some do not. Parents may have the best of intentions, however some methods can have unintended consequences and lead to weight gain and disordered or unhealthy eating behaviours in adulthood.
A few more points
- Girls whose parents restrict snack foods are more likely to feel bad about themselves after eating such foods
- A dieting mother is shown to be associated with lower body satisfaction in a daughter
- Parents who overtly restrict their 2-year old’s intake because of fear of overweight initially are successful at regulating their child’s weight, however by 5-years of age these practices tend to predict higher weight scores.
- Desire for previously restricted foods and emotion-induced over-eating in 3-4 year olds tends to continue into adulthood.
- Focus on developing positive relationships with healthy foods.
- Be persistent (but not pushy) when introducing new, healthy foods.
- Plan ahead to avoid those ‘I’m exhausted so I’m cooking chicken nuggets’ moments! (In fact it’s best to not keep these in our freezers at all)
- Eat together as a family.
- Make meal times and snack times positive and healthy and not about punishment or reward.
- Don’t give up and don’t be too hard on yourself! Changes take time. Decide on one thing you could do (or stop doing) that will be better for you and your kids and focus on that first.
We all want our kids to be happy and healthy, but it’s easier said than done!
Want to chat about healthy eating with your kiddos?
I made a cute little Healthy Eating Book that’s free to download. There’s a page for boys and one for girls – there’s no difference between them except the clipart. It covers some of the points in this post that are appropriate for little ones. After making them I realised I fell into the trap of using good versus bad foods so I’ve changed the book to say ‘these foods are best for me,’ although I haven’t changed the picture below!
What’s your ‘one thing’ you’d like to do (or not do) to make healthy eating in your house easier?
Mine is to always keep a packet of small spinach leaves in the fridge because you can throw the whole bag into practically any dinner to add more green without changing the taste of the dish!
Laura Hart, Stephanie Damiano, Chelsea Cornell and Susan J. Paxton. (2015). What parents know and want to learn about healthy eating and body image in preschool children: a triangulated qualitative study with parents and Early Childhood Professionals BMC Public Health 15:596. doi:10.1186/s12889-015-1865-4
Allison Kiefner-Burmeister, Debra Hoffmann, Molly Meers, Afton Koball, Dara Musher-Eizenman. (2014). Food consumption by young children: A function of parental feeding goals and practices. Appetite Vol. 74, p.6–11. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2013.11.011
Gemma Mitchell, Claire Farrow, Emma Haycraft, Caroline Meyer. (2013). Parental inﬂuences on children’s eating behaviour and characteristics of successful parent-focussed interventions. Appetite Vol. 60, p.85–94. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2012.09.014
Rebecca Whear & Nick Axford. (2009). “Finish What’s on Your Plate!”: The Relationships between Parenting, Children’s Nutrition and Outcomes. Child Care in Practice, 15:2, 145-159, DOI: 10.1080/13575270802685229
SL Anzman, BY Rollins and LL Birch. (2010). Parental influence on children’s early eating environments and obesity risk: implications for prevention. International Journal of Obesity, Vol. 34, 1116–1124. doi:10.1038/ijo.2010.43
I wish you happy teaching, eating and learning!