This article appears in Fall Healthy Living 2018.
Forcing kids eat their peas or broccoli may be causing more harm than good. An expert from the University of Michigan advises parents to take it easy.
Pressuring kids to eat healthy foods that they turn their noses up at can make mealtime painful and damage the parent-child bond, said Julie Lumeng, director of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development and a physician at C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.
The research, published this summer in the journal Appetite, found that pressuring kids to eat food they don’t like and picky eating go hand-in-hand. Yet, insisting that kids eat food they don’t want doesn’t affect their weight or whether they will become picky eaters, the study found.
“We found that pressuring children to eat wasn’t linked with reductions in selective eating. Given that we don’t find much evidence of changes in selective eating as a result of pressuring children, it raises questions about whether it is worth it to pressure children,” Lumeng said. “The downsides may outweigh any benefit — and the downsides may be negative impacts on the child’s own sense of well-being and autonomy, as well as the parent-child relationship.”
Using coercion to get kids to eat can cause mealtime tension, and the research didn’t find evidence that pestering or bribing reduced or increased selective eating.
“So, in other words, it didn’t seem to make it worse or better; it just didn’t do anything,” Lumeng said. “People theorize it could make kids even pickier, though our study didn’t find evidence for that.”
Researchers have explored the topic for 10 to 15 years.
“There have been about a dozen prior studies that have looked at pieces of these links before, and the bulk of these prior studies also found no evidence for links between picky eating, pressuring feeding and growth in children. So our study findings line up with what others have found as well,” Lumeng said.
Picky eating is rarely a health issue associated with nutritional deficiencies or poor weight gain or growth, Lumeng said.
And parental pressure may not only be frustrating for adults and children, it may be squelching their personality, she said.
If you have a selective eater, try some of Lumeng’s tips:
— Model eating healthy foods. This is particularly effective when the model is another child as opposed to an adult.
— Encourage one taste of a food repeatedly. This has been shown to ultimately lead to greater acceptance of the new food.
— Mix it up. Allowing children to mix a new or disliked food with a liked food (such as ranch dressing) has also been shown to have positive effects on their acceptance of the new or disliked food.