Letting children make their own decisions about food and what they eat can lead to better nutrition and healthier lifelong eating behaviours, a study reports.
The American Heart Association recommends reduced parental pressure on children to eat meals, a wider variety of healthy eating options and an overall ‘positive eating atmosphere’.
Such factors encourage children ‘take ownership’ of their eating decisions and may help them develop eating patterns linked to a healthy weight for an entire lifetime.
In comparison, a negative ‘authoritarian’ eating environment does not allow a child to develop decision-making skills and can lead to snacking and unhealthy diets.
Parents and caregivers have a role to play in creating positive mealtimes and help prevent future generations from being blighted by health problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disease later in life.
Scroll down for video
Repeatedly offering children a wide variety of healthy foods increases the likelihood they will accept them, particularly when served with foods they prefer
‘Parents and caregivers should consider building a positive food environment centred on healthy eating habits, rather than focusing on rigid rules about what and how a child should eat,’ said Dr Alexis Wood at the Children’s Nutrition Research Center and the department of pediatrics at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston.
HOW TO IMPLEMENT A POSITIVE EATING ENVIRONMENT FOR CHILDREN
American Heart Association advises parents and caregivers to encourage children to eat healthy foods by:
– Providing consistent timing for meals.
– Allowing children to select what foods they want to eat from a selection of healthy choices.
– Serving healthy or new foods alongside foods children already enjoy.
– Regularly eating new, healthy foods while eating with the child and demonstrating enjoyment of the food.
– Paying attention to a child’s verbal or non-verbal hunger and fullness cues.
– Avoiding pressuring children to eat more than they wish to eat.
‘It is very clear that each child is an individual and differs in their tendency to make healthy decisions about food as they grow.
‘This is why it is important to focus on creating an environment that encourages decision-making skills and provides exposure to a variety of healthy, nutritious foods throughout childhood, and not place undue attention on the child’s individual decisions.’
Wood said that parents and caregivers may find it challenging to allow children to make their own food decisions, especially if they are picky eaters – a common characteristic in early childhood between the ages of 1 to 5 years, as children are learning about the tastes and textures of solid foods.
While imposing ‘rigid and authoritarian rules’ around eating and using tactics such as rewards or punishments may feel like successful tactics in the short term, they can have serious long-term negative consequences.
An authoritarian eating environment does not allow a child to develop positive decision-making skills and can reduce their sense of control – both important developmental processes for children.
Parents and caregivers may find it challenging to allow children to make their own food decisions, especially if the children become reluctant to try new foods or become picky eaters
The report suggests numerous ways to encourage children to eat healthy foods in a way that do not backfire or cause rebellious, unhealthy eating.
Among these, one of the most important is to avoid pressurising children to eat more than they wish, even if they haven’t finished a full plate.
If children feel under pressure to eat, it may be harder for them to listen to their individual internal cues that tell them when they are full.
A negative consequence of this is children being more likely to eat when they are not hungry – leading to unnecessary overeating.
Although many children are innately able to stop eating when they are full, they are also influenced by the overall emotional atmosphere at mealtime.
Caregivers or parents can therefore enthusiastically eat a certain type of food to also help a child accept this food – although this can stop short of belly rubbing or exaggerated noises.
Efforts that encourage caregivers to provide a ‘structured feeding environment’ could be an important component of reducing obesity risk throughout childhood and even throughout life
Allowing children to pick what foods they want to eat from a selection of healthy choices and serving healthy or new foods alongside foods children already enjoy are other ‘positive’ ways to subtly direct a child towards a healthy life.
However, providing consistent timing for meals is still recommended by the authors, likely due to the fact that it eliminates the tendency to snack throughout the day.
Parents and caregivers have to maintain a balance, however – on the other end of the scale, an ‘indulgent approach’, where a child is allowed to eat whatever they want whenever they want does not provide enough boundaries for children to develop healthy eating habits.
Research has also linked this ‘laissez-faire’ approach to a greater risk of children becoming overweight obese.
Brothers, sisters and other family members can also to do their bit to help youngsters in the family develop a healthy relationship with food.
‘Children’s eating behaviours are influenced by a lot of people in their lives, so ideally, we want the whole family to demonstrate healthy eating habits,’ said Dr Wood.
The researchers say that parents and caregivers should not feel undue stress or blame for children’s eating behaviours if things don’t go to plan.
They also acknowledge the socio-economic status of a particular family that may make implementing a ‘positive’ eating atmosphere more of a challenge.
The research has been published in the Journal of the American Heart Association.
ONE IN 25 CHILDREN AGED 10 TO 11 IN ENGLAND ARE ‘SEVERELY OBESE’
Government data revealed in 2018 that one in every 25 10 to 11-year-olds are severely obese, the fattest possible category.
And out of around 556,000 children of primary school-leaving age in the UK, 170,000 are overweight to some degree, figures showed in May last year.
More than one in five 11-year-olds are obese – equivalent to around 111,000 children – and being so fat means they are more likely to develop type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer or have a stroke.
The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health say children should be weighed every year at school because ‘danger is on the horizon’ and the UK is lagging behind the rest of the EU in tackling obesity.
Experts have also warned children gain weight ‘at a drastic rate’ when they’re at school.
Sugar in food is known to be contributing to the swelling waistlines of children, with huge amounts of popular foods crammed full of sugar.
A sugar tax has reduced the effects of some soft drinks, but breakfast cereals can still contain more than 70 per cent of an entire day’s sugar in a single bowl.
Even a single can of Coca Cola (35g of sugar) or one Mars bar (33g) contain more than the maximum amount of sugar a child should have over a whole day.