My husband and I are foodies; we eat a predominantly vegetarian diet that is full of food that many American parents would consider “not kid-friendly” – things like collard greens, pad thai, and whole wheat bread with lots of seeds. 

Our two children have been eating what we eat at almost every meal since their first bite of solid food (though I suppose that applies to breastmilk too).

For the most part, they have surprisingly open tastes when it comes to food.

But life is not perfect at our dinner table.  We have our nights when our kids refuse to eat, either because the food is not to their liking, we are eating too late and they are grumpy and tired, or (most often) because they aren’t hungry enough to finish what they are served.  These nights are a constant battle for us, and unfortunately consistency is not our strong point.  Our responses on any given night could include any one of the following:

  • “You’re not leaving the table until your plate is empty.”
  • “Just eat three more bites and you can earn dessert.”
  • “It’s your choice, but if you don’t eat you won’t be getting another snack before bed.”
  • “Just eat as much as you can.”

Quite frequently, my husband and I have different opinions of how it should be handled.  No wonder our kindergartener alternates between cleaning his plate, making his own decision to forgo dessert, negotiating with us, or throwing a temper tantrum.

I recently turned to research to see if there was a preferable approach to this nightly dilemma.  If scholars can agree on the appropriate parental behavior, then perhaps my husband and I can agree too?  Here are some of the things I learned.

There is a name for the behavior I’m talking about: parental pressure-to-eat.

First, there is a name for the behavior I’m talking about: parental pressure-to-eat.  It’s when parents pressure their child either to eat in general, or to eat healthy foods.   It applies to the “clean your plate” approach and the “you must eat your broccoli” approach as well as the “three more bites and you can have dessert approach.”  It is a highly studied phenomenon.  I did a Google Scholar search for articles published in the last three years and found at least 20 relevant studies within a few minutes.

Second – and here’s the difficult news – many of these studies link parental behaviors around food with eating problems in childhood and later in life.   The fact is, we parents have a lot of say in what our children eat and so we have the potential to contribute highly to our children’s tendencies to be picky eaters, emotional eaters, overweight teenagers, or teenagers with eating disorders. In short, both pressure-to-eat strategies and restrictive strategies can have a negative impact on children’s ability to self-regulate their diet.  Researchers argue that we are “socializing our children to eat past their internal hunger/satiety clues” (Orrel-Valente, 2006).

What’s more, according to a review of the research on this topic by Mitchell et al (2013), “the stress and anxiety that can surround difficult mealtimes can have a detrimental impact upon both child and parental psychological wellbeing”.  I can relate to that after a few nights of conflict-filled dinners.

For those of us who have given in to the “clean your plate” pressure, or the tendency to bribe with dessert, there is some more bad news: a growing collection of research seems to be showing that pressure-to-eat strategies aren’t working.

A laboratory experiment conducted by Galloway et al (2006) showed that when kids were given constant messages to finish what they were served they actually ate less than kids who were not given those messages.   Kids who were not pressured to eat also made “fewer negative comments” – a worthy goal, I think we could all agree.

Girl Eating Dinner

So, if pressure-to-eat is the not the way to go, what’s a parent to do?

Let’s start with the idea that giving up pressure-to-eat does not mean giving up healthy eating.  If we have such high potential to contribute to our children’s negative eating challenges, we also have great potential to contribute to their eating success.  We aren’t supposed to just sit back and let them do whatever they want.

According to a study published by researchers in New Zealand (Haszard et al, 2015), “healthy eating guidance and monitoring by parents were related to the consumption of fewer unhealthy foods.” Notice the words used by these researchers – they bear repeating – guidance and monitoring. Not pressure or force feeding.  When parents didn’t monitor their kids’ eating and gave the kids high levels of freedom over what they chose to eat, kids became fussy eaters.  Conversely, when parents were somewhat “food restrictive” and gave children choices within limits children ended up eating more healthy fruits and vegetables.  As Loth et al (2013) described, parents should be “educated and empowered” so that they can anticipate problems in advance and be prepared to help their children make healthy choices.

One way we can be educated is to learn a bit about portion size and the variability in kids’ energy intake.  The USDA guidelines for children age 6-12 state that lunch or dinner should consist of: 1 cup of milk; ¾ cup of fruits or vegetables; 1 grain/bread; and one serving of protein (2 oz of meat, for example, or a ½ cup beans).  Likewise, the American Academy of Pediatrics says that portions should be “child size” until adolescence.  I highly suspect there are nights in our household where we overfill our kids’ plates, setting them up for failure.

Even within these guidelines, we also have to trust our kids a bit more to know how hungry they are.  A classic study by the New England Journal of Medicine (Birch et al, 1991) confirmed earlier studies showing that kids are pretty good at adjusting how much they eat from meal-to-meal and ending up with an appropriate overall daily intake with little to no adult guidance.

It’s pretty impressive what kids can do if we let go a little and give them a bit more ownership over their bodies.

The overall message, as I interpret it, seems to be that we should teach our kids about healthy foods and we should help to influence their good eating habits by providing right-sized healthy meals and limiting sweets, but we should not impose “clean your plate” rules just for the sake of those rules, nor should we completely disallow sweets here and there.   We need to coach our children so that they will be able to make their own decisions about food and healthy eating as they leave our dinner table for other venues.

There is one other extremely important message in a number of the research studies I read.  What parents eat matters.

There is one other extremely important message in a number of the research studies I read.  What parents eat matters.  As one study that looked at the influence of mothers’ eating on their daughters’ food habits stated: “findings suggest that parents should focus less on ‘picky eating’ behavior and more on modeling fruit and vegetable consumption for their children” (Galloway et al, 2005).  We cannot use the “do as I say and not as I do” strategy if we want our kids to learn about healthy eating.  This supports the theory that we should feed kids what we are eating, as long as what we are eating is a healthy choice (for more on this, read about Bee Wilson’s new book First Bite: How we Learn to Eat).

There are a ton of resources out there on how to help kids enjoy healthy foods, and many present strong alternatives to the pressure-to-eat approach.  But when it comes to actually sitting down at the dinner table, this research has encouraged my husband and me to try the following strategies:

  1. Eat meals together so that we can role-model healthy choices and our kids don’t expect a special meal prepared to their specifications;
  2. Start with realistic serving sizes and encourage our kids to ask for more if they are hungry;
  3. Offer our kids a few choices of healthy options (small servings to avoid waste) so that they have some say in what they are going to eat, but all choices are acceptable to us;
  4. Better yet, have our older son choose some of his own meals, helping him to select the right combination of  food groups;
  5. Explain to our children that they don’t have to finish their plate, but that they might have to wait until the next regular meal or snack time for more food.

There is a great deal of art to helping kids eat healthy foods – we can create amazing recipes, bring them right to the garden to see where their food comes from, and get their hands dirty in the kitchen – but there is also a great deal of science that can help to illuminate promising practices.  In our household, these strategies are definitely worth a try.  Good food is too important to fight about.

*I encourage you to visit some of these links and read articles yourself; for guidance on how to interpret an academic article, see Information Overload: Navigating the Research on Raising Kids