The importance of ‘parenting around food’ while staying at home

Zoono Family Panel @ 2020-04-29 12:50:11 +0100
Sarah Almond Bushell MPhil, BSc (Hons) RD, MBDA
Dietitian & Children’s Nutritionist


Being at home with our children 24/7 is a very different experience for most of us. How we parent around food may not have even entered your thoughts before now, but I can bet since lockdown you either been faced with a child who isn’t eating as much as they used to at mealtimes, or one who is constantly asking (or helping themselves) to snacks.


What is ‘Food Parenting’?

Food parenting is a phrase that healthcare professionals use to describe our ‘feeding style’ or how we are around food with our children. For example, it includes things like:

 We used to think that a healthy diet plus exercise made for a healthy child; now we know it’s a lot more complicated than that. How you ‘food parent’ is also important for a healthy child.


Be Consistent 


It’s key that both parents are singing from the same hymn-sheet. You both need to give consistent messages to your children around food because inconsistencies mean that children get mixed messages.


Getting food parenting wrong has been linked to children developing unhealthy eating habits, such as eating in the absence of hunger or eating to manage their emotions, which can ultimately negatively influence their weight and their future relationship with food.


Mums and dads, use this as an opportunity to get together and work through the following 5 points:


  • How you structure meals and snacks at home

    Having a predictable pattern to when you serve meals and snacks throughout the day encourages children to grow up to have a healthy relationship with food. 


    Appropriately spacing out food and snacks helps them self-regulate their food intake by avoiding overeating or not eating enough at mealtimes. 


    But it also reduces their ‘food thinking’, their constant requests for snacks and their drive to help themselves and sneak food in between meals. This is because they feel reassured in the knowledge that food will come at regular times. Effectively, they don’t have to think about eating, because they know what to expect.


  • Where you eat food and how you serve it

    Eating together is crucial. At a table is ideal, but a rug on the floor will do just as well. 


    Children need to see you eating the same food as them, as this teaches them to trust that the food in front of them is ‘safe’ and tasty. Children can sometime be suspicious of certain foods, its completely normal and part of their developmental stage. They do need reassurance from you though, if they see you eating green beans, they are more likely to eat green beans too.  


    How you serve the food can be helpful too. Placing food in serving bowls in the centre of the table and letting your child serve themselves is a good way of helping them master portion control and appetite. Children as young as 2 can serve themselves in this way and younger children can point and indicate more or stop. This is called ‘family style serving’ and there is a lot of positive research around this.


    Avoiding distractions like the iPad, phones (parents too), TV or toys is an absolute must. Children really need to focus on the job in hand – the family meal – in order to eat mindfully, taking notice of when they’re full or when they may want a second helping.


  • Who is in charge?

    What happens when your child just pushes the food around their plate and doesn’t eat much? Do you encourage them? Do you talk about how much they have or haven’t eaten? 


    Do you find yourself offering a reward like “you can have ice cream for pudding if you eat your broccoli”? Or do you issue a threat or punishment: “there’ll be no iPad if you don’t eat your chicken”


    These are all forms of control and these seemly harmless interactions around food can actually have a negative effect on a child’s relationship with food. Asking them to eat when they don’t want to is asking them to override their fullness cues which means they can’t regulate their appetite.


    Your child, whatever their age, needs to be allowed to trust their own body. It’s not your job to get your child to eat. Your role as a parent is to decide on the when, where and what to eat and then to take a step back. Your job is done. Your child’s job is to decide ‘if’ to eat and how much.


    This is called ‘the division of responsibility in feeding’, a theory from dietician Ellyn Satter, and has been shown to help children grow up having a healthy relationship with food.


  • How your child knows what to eat

    Part of positive food parenting is teaching your child the basics of healthy eating so that they can begin to make independent food choices of their own.


    A great way to do this is to get your children involved in food preparation, and not just when you are baking cakes. Make it a rule that your children help get dinner ready. Even a toddler can tear lettuce leaves and wash them. A school age child can chop soft vegetables with a butter knife, stir sauces or kneed dough and a teenager can be in charge of deciding and cooking dinner once a week. 


    Also involve them in writing out your weekly meal plan. For example, if they ask to have sausages and mash one day, you can say “we need to add a vegetable to this dinner to make it balanced” and “oops, we don’t have a dairy food either, should we have yoghurt for dessert?” so you are teaching the concepts of making a balanced meal.


    Use the Eat Well Guide as a visual prompt for them to see what’s included in the meal and what’s missing. This is also quite handy when it comes to negotiations if they ask for sweets and chocolate. By all means say yes (if you want to) but show them where these foods sit within the Eat Well Guide. 


  • Your personal food habits

    If you’re not a huge fan of greens, you can’t expect your child to like them either. 


    Children learn from watching their parents and how they are around food. If you never take a piece of broccoli and put it on your plate and in your mouth, your child won’t either. This is one of the reasons that eating together as a family is so important, children need to see you eating the same food as them to learn how to do it.


    Likewise, if you have a secret habit for munching biscuits and sneak one from the back of the cupboard whenever you think no-one is watching, when your child finds out they are going think it’s normal and potentially want to want to do the same. 


    Food is food and there shouldn’t be one type that is more desirable than the other. Eating biscuits together occasionally is a much better way to show your children that its ok to have treats in moderation. Secreting them away harbours feelings of restriction and guilt and, ultimately, this is not a healthy way to be around food.


    I urge you to use this opportunity we have while isolating to consider your food parenting. We all want to raise happy healthy eaters but to do so both parents need to be in sync and practice positive food parenting.