What Forcing Kids to Eat Looks Like 20 Years Later

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on July 6, 2012

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Make your bed. Clean your room. And eat your veggies!

I often hear parents lump kids’ eating in the same category as other chores. But eating food is different — very different. As we discussed in the other post on rewarding kids with food, the way we feed our children imprints their eating for years, even after they leave the nest.

So what are the long-term effects of forcing a child to eat? Let’s take a look…

The Research
After digging in the research I found a study published in the 2002 issue of Appetite surveying over 100 college students. Of these young adults, 70% said they had experienced forced-food consumption during childhood. Most often than not, the forcer was a parent and the common forced foods included vegetables, red meat and seafood.

The scenario goes something like this: the forcer coerces the forcee to eat the target food for reasons such as health, variety and waste. The most common tactics used were threats such as no dessert or staying at the table. In over half of these cases there was a stand-off lasting an average of 50 minutes!

What is most interesting is the internal conflict the forcees experienced — 31% experienced strong conflict, 41% moderate conflict and 29% slight conflict. Forty-nine percent said they cried, 55% experienced nausea, and 20% vomited. Most of the responses to the experience were negative with feelings of anger, fear, disgust, confusion and humiliation. The forcees also experienced feelings such as lack of control and helplessness.

Will they freely choose “that” food?

When asked if they would now eat the food they were forced to eat in childhood, 72% said they would not. The researcher’s explanation is that when a child finally gives in and eats something he doesn’t want to, he “loses” and the parent “wins.” So later in life, when he can freely choose the food on his own, he chooses to “win.”

Also, forced food consumption that results in gagging, vomiting and overall disgust can cause food aversions. Pickier kids tend to be more sensitive to different textures so being made to eat something that offends them can make that item displeasing for many years, if not a lifetime.

When asked if the forced consumption changed their overall eating habits as adults, over one-third said yes. Of those who said yes, 73% said it limited their diet and 27% said it made them more open to new foods. While this is only one study, and it does not prove cause and effect, it’s important food for thought.


The Opposite Effect

After studying the feeding literature over the last few years, it’s clear that many of the feeding strategies parents employ have the opposite effect. Forcing and pressuring causes kids to eat less and dislike certain foods. Restricting children makes them want to eat more.

I think a lot of it comes down to distrust. Parents have trouble believing their children will eventually learn to like a variety of foods on their own. When kids are highly food neophobic (afraid of foods), which peaks between 2 and 6, they can be very adamant about new foods, saying things like “I’ll never eat that!” If a parent doesn’t understand the child’s development, and that this is normal and will lessen with time, they’ll be more likely to fight against it making the stage last longer.

So as you can see, eating is different from other habits such as cleaning and brushing teeth. It involves taste, texture, appetite, temperament, listening and trust. It’s not about making or tricking a child eat what’s in front of them, but creating the circumstances that will help a child eat well today, and 20 years from now.

So tell me, were you forced to eat food as a kid? How does it affect your eating today?

Got a picky eater? Get the latest research and tips in my new new e-book From Picky to Powerful



Batsell, R.W., Brown, A.S., Ansfield, M.E., and Paschall, GY. “You Will Eat All of That!”: A Retrospective Analysis of Forced Consumption Episodes. Appetite. 2002, 38 (3), 211-219.

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{ 87 comments… read them below or add one }

kylee May 19, 2015 at 6:21 pm

I was forced to eat foods when I was little and I still am but today I was recently told that I couldn’t eat today . Then, I was at my school lunch and I don’t like any of there food choices or there milk but I have nothing else to eat and my mom says that I should just not eat is that healthy or not ?.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD May 21, 2015 at 5:29 pm

I think its up to you. If that’s the only meal than you might want to try and eat something to fill your belly so your no hungry – especially at school when you’re learning.


Marge May 23, 2015 at 7:01 am

Your mom is probably tired of you being picky (guessing here) which is why she said that. Here are things I used to do, when I did not want to eat what was given to me: I would raid the pantry and sneak the food of what I did want to eat. One problem though… I would sneak bowls of cereal with milk to my room, not finish it, and then fruit flies would develop because I forgot to bring it back. It was kind of gross. BUT if you sneak things like chips and crackers they don’t spoil. Also, raid the coin jar and go to the nearest food\snack\pharmacy\gas station and get some food. Now, you could get in trouble taking the coins (I always got caught) and it does become a lot of work doing this. OR you could just shovel the food in your mouth that comes from the school, and then you won’t have to worry about doing all of that. Plus it will keep your stomach from growling. I used to eat a pastry with my lunch money when I got to high school. They sold those at the high school. Then I would go run track. I turned out OK. I am almost 50 now.


Amanda Crowther June 23, 2015 at 7:09 pm

Only by my grandmothers as small child they wanted fo fatten me up cause I was born long and skinny. Sadly I am not that anymore. I am little over weight but working to loose it. I tended to under eat as never felt hungry and for reasons I don’t follow in part made me gain weight. Some days I do have to make self eat. There are stl texture I can’t stand and certain foods I refuse to eat but that’s not from grandmothers force feeding it is my own body not trusting all the food dyed blue and bad experiences with grape flavored candy which my aunt exasperated me and my little sis warned her not to make me suck the grape sucker especially in car. Barf happened. My mother’s food should have been labeled toxic waste. Loved dad’s cooking though I I couldn’t eat a lot at once. I have had to teach self to go humming bird style eating.I am still working on mouth texture issues. I am weird because I like to smell food once or twice before I consider trying it. And part of reason cautious go try new stuff is food allergies


Christine Horan June 24, 2015 at 10:35 am

as a parent I NEVER MADE MY KIDS EAT THINGS THEY DIDNT LIKE!!!!! I was a picky eater as a child & my mother & father never made me eat dairy ( to me cheese milk & even butter to me tasted like something went bad) to date I don’t like cheese milk ( when pregnant I’d add chocolate to it to get calcium for the baby,) but I do use a lil butter now & then dip & chips ,I barely skim edge of chive & onion dip, cottage cheese makes me want to throw up,still ! I haven’t really changed what I like. I think parents are wrong to make their kids eat stuff they don’t like ! I know I still don’t like what I didn’t like as a child & if I had parents that made me sit until I ate something with heavy cheese or drink white milk, I’d sit there all night & go to bed with No desert & early rather than eat what I didn’t like.I feel it’s very wrong. Now my youngest as a baby loved fruit but as she got older she won’t eat any fruit. I think it’s strange but it’s up to her taste buds not mine !!!


yosh June 24, 2015 at 12:44 pm

This is ridiculous. I was forced to eat all my food when i was younger, things that i feared and things that I KNEW i wouldn’t enjoy. Being put in this position made me experience a lot of foods I wouldnt have on my own. I was a very picky eater when i was little.
Now as an adult, i love trying new foods.
however my husband was given the soft hand approach. if his parents didnt eat it (seafood, veggies) then he wasnt forced to. now as an adult, he has the worst diet ive ever seen. he only eats beef, cheese, some rice, and candy. if I bring any type of veggie or fruit to him he gags. this is what happens when you give kids the option to eat what they want when they are younger. smfh


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 7, 2015 at 2:39 pm

Hi Yosh. I wonder if your husband had some underlying issues causing him to have such narrow food likes. Now we know so much more about eating problems and kids can get help. He can still get help now if he wants. It’s not normal to eat only a handful of foods. But just so you know, forcing food is never recommended with sensitive eaters!

Also, it sounds like his parents did not eat lots of fruits and vegetables. Studies show kids tend to follow in their parents footsteps when it comes to eating. Maybe this has less to them not making him eat and more with the limited menu he grew up with.


Elle October 30, 2015 at 7:20 am

The difference is offering & introducing foods, not forcing them. I never forced my children to eat when they weren’t hungry. My rules were you must join the family at the dinner table and no dessert/junk food snacks (not hungry = not hungry for anything). New foods always were put on their plates & they were encouraged to try them, never forced. My sons eat & love almost everything as adults. I was forced to eat as a child and struggle with a healthy relationship with food.


FakeName July 1, 2015 at 8:41 am

I was often force-fed as a child and all it resulted in was a fear of food and an eating disorder.


Melanie July 6, 2015 at 8:58 pm

I was expected to finish my food as a child. I did it and have suffered zero I’ll effects from it. I’m not picky at all. I’ll eat anything and everything. I love food so much, I went to culinary school and became a baker. Everyone is different. Just because food aversion exists does not mean every child will develop one after being made to eat their veggies.


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 7, 2015 at 2:28 pm

You are right Melanie and is even addressed in the study I cite — a smaller portion of people felt being made to eat helped expand their palate. But this is a risk parents take when use forced eating as a strategy as its more likely to have a negative than positive effect. Plus, even if you parents did not force you to eat, you probably would have grown up to love food just as much. Especially if they continued exposed you to different foods and didn’t feed you the same things all the time. Another downside to “making kids eat” also supported by research is can negatively affect food regulation causing weight issues later in life. Just something to think about.


ashley July 7, 2015 at 10:22 am

My son who is now 18 months has been seeing an occupational therapist for the past 4 months. He still only eats baby food stage 2. Any chunks in his food his automatically spits out. We have figured out it isn’t any issues with his mouth or throat bc I have seen him eat a few things a few times. He has chewed a few bites of chicken. He now eats bananas by holding them and loves cheetto puffs bc they melt. I do believe in my heart of hearts believe he will eat when ready too but he is sensitive to texture. Would this book be recommended for someone like him??


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD July 7, 2015 at 2:30 pm

You might want to check out the book Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating http://www.amazon.com/Helping-Child-Extreme-Picky-Eating/dp/162625110X


Maxine July 10, 2015 at 11:22 am

I think it’s good to keep in mind that there are extremes in both cases. How much do parents really force the child, type of punishment if they don’t comply, how lenient they are, when do the parents stop trying, is the parent a good cook at all, what cultural pressures are there? Looking back I was not a picky eater, but I was pushed to eat a lot; to always finish my plate which was a huge portion. Now I have a hard time eating smaller portions. She was a good cook, but some dishes I didn’t like that much. Growing up I saw the same ingredients cooked differently and now eat them well and even crave them. For example she would cook spinach until it was a paste. This would bring out the strong iron taste which was hard to get used to. Growing up I tried it raw in a salad and it was delicious. I even tried it very lightly sautéed with soy sauce and sesame oil and again it was delicious.
I don’t think parents should push too much, but they shouldn’t give up trying either. Some parents are absolutely awful cooks and then they blame the kid for not eating well.
My family taught me how to cook and I appreciate the huge variety of way to prepare food and how it affects people.


melis August 22, 2015 at 1:41 pm

I was forced to eat when I was a kid.
Once my mom cooked something (horse beans) I really didn’t like and said that was the only food and we couldn’t afford to buy or cook anything else that day. Since then, I eat pretty much anything but horse beans. I don’t think it’s physiological. I really don’t like the taste.

Even though that was a milestone for me to eat ‘my vegetables’, what really made me start eating every thing was to start cooking myself (in college) and traveling to different countries and experiencing their cuisines.

I used to watch food shows. I believe it helped me to understand even if your mom doesn’t cook that way, there are different ways to cook things, and they can look /taste pretty good.

As a kid, I didn’t want to eat the same thing couple days in a raw, or I wasn’t understanding when a dish didn’t turn out so good. Having to cook for myself around college, completely changed this.

I don’t have kids yet but I’m planning to help my kids to start cooking early with giving them small challenges. I really believe that is the key to develop a mutual understanding between parents and kids about food.


Faith August 31, 2015 at 7:59 pm

I’m another who was forced to eat what was on my plate as a child, to the point of sitting at the table for over an hour after dinner while whatever-it-was just got cold and nastier. When I did finally choke down certain things, cooked peas being number one on the list, they invariably came back up and I was accused of ‘making’ myself throw up (yeah, like I wanted to taste that stuff again, Mom!)
Do not do this to your kids!

For me, it was usually a texture or smell thing, as I would happily eat most of those same, upchuck inducing veggies as long as they were raw. None of that has changed, and today I still won’t eat most vegetables if they are cooked. All my parents really accomplished was to make sure that the smell of cooked peas, corn, beans or carrots makes me nauseous. Funnily enough, I actually liked cooked spinach, broccoli and cauliflower; still do, too.


Mag November 4, 2015 at 11:20 pm

Hi All,
I am a mother of two and I will like to get your opinion on whether a teacher in a school should force a child to eat back food that has been spat out (for one reason or the other) from her mouth?


Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD November 5, 2015 at 8:01 am

In my opinion, that needs to be addressed with the principal.


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