This is Part 3 of the Series: What to Do When Picky Eating Doesn’t Get Better
Jane was worried about her 9 year old son’s picky eating along with his weight which was at the 10th percentile. “His age is what is concerning the most,” she says. “I have been concerned for years, and have always been told that he would ‘outgrow the pickiness’.”
After doing her homework, she decided he wasn’t a resistant eater, just a child more sensitive to tastes and textures. Jane quickly realized that the pressure she asserted at the table wasn’t working. After all, she required him to eat at least half of his favorites, like chicken, and she would have him eat a certain number of bites in order to have dessert. She also required tastes of food and while she tried her best to make meals pleasant they were often tense.
In this third post in my What to Do When Picky Eating Doesn’t Get Better series, we are looking at the problem of pressuring kids to eat. If time marches on and your child remains a picky eater, especially into the school years, it’s time to figure out if the pressure they feel is holding them back.
What is pressure and who’s doing it?
Pressure is defined as an “attempt to persuade or coerce (someone) into doing something.” At the family table, the aim of pressure is to get a child to eat something or eat in a way that a caregiver deems acceptable.
Parents will often say “I don’t make my kids eat” but they forget about the negative effects of pressure, both covert and overt. For example, covert pressure might be having a child cook or help in the garden with the sole intention of getting them to eat (i.e., offering tastes of food at every corner). Overt pressure might be saying something like, “Come on, eat it, I worked hard on this meal.” Pressure can take many forms and what really matters isn’t what the parents say but how the child receives it. In my experience, the pickier the kid, the more sensitive they are to pressure.
Studies show that children who are picky, slow to eat and underweight are the most likely to be pressured to eat. Research also reveals parents use different feeding styles on different kids, with pressure most likely geared towards the “picky” child in the family. Other studies show it’s common for parents to pressure children to eat healthy foods, including veggies, out of concerns for health.
Why pressure backfires
Parents may not realize that pressure can produce the opposite of what they want — a loss of appetite. Because picky children are more sensitive to tastes and textures food, just the thought of everyone staring at them, trying to get them to eat, makes eating less appetizing.
“The main thing to remember with a reluctant eater is that much of their issues with food are due to anxiety, which can trigger the fight/flight response, decreasing appetite,” says Jennifer Hatfield, speech and language pathologist (SLP). “Pressure not only causes a behavior response but also an actual chemical change in how body that flips the switch “off” on the very thing we are trying desperately to switch “on.”
Take a study published in Appetite. Children pressured to eat soup not only ate less, they made 157 negative comments while eating compared to 30 negative comments in the no-pressure group, coloring the eating atmosphere as negative.
The myth that keeps pressure alive
One of the biggest misconceptions about feeding children is that not interfering with eating is the equivalent of doing nothing. But when parents take over the child’s job, they aren’t really helping them in the long run. In fact, pressuring kids to eat has been associated with increased picky eating, low weight, poor food regulation, fewer fruits and vegetables and disordered eating in girls.
“Nagging can make you feel controlled, and no one likes to feel that way,” Dr Robert Myers writes on Empowering Parents. “Being nagged feels like you’re being manipulated, and tends to make the “nag-ee” feel like digging in his or her heels instead of doing what he or she is being nagged to do.”
A better way to approach mealtime
When it comes to feeding picky eaters, changing not just your actions but your intention will do wonders. Moving away from the intention of “getting children to eat” to helping them “enjoy and explore food,” will instantly change the dynamic.
Marsha Klein, pediatric occupational therapist and creator of Mealtime Notions, explains on her website how parents can redefine “try it” from putting food in their mouth to getting comfortable with food in the first place (the pre-requisite needed for picky eaters to actually try it). This might include being next to the food, touching, smelling, holding, licking and eventually putting in their mouths when they are ready.
By re-defining “try it” we take some of the pressure off the child and ourselves and we can begin to see forward progress toward more food interaction. Children can become comfortable with food tasting and begin to learn about their own taste and texture preferences….on their terms, at their own pace without PRESSURE to eat quantities.
Removing pressure from the table isn’t a panacea, it just creates an environment where cautious eaters can learn and grow when it comes to food. Jane, who shared her story at the beginning of this post, decided to lay off the pressure.
“Big changes are going to come, they will be difficult…but we will get there,” she said. Checking back a few months later she admits that “it takes patience and diligence” but she’s leaving it up to her son to decide what and how much to eat at mealtime from what she serves. He’s added a couple of foods to his “like” list including sweet potatoes and grapes and is also drinking more milk.
Progress may be slow, but it’s progress made by a willing child. And that’s what counts.
Do you think your child is affected by pressure to eat? Did you experience pressure growing up?
Farrow C.V., Galloway, A.T., Fraser, K. (2009). Sibling eating behaviors and differential child feeding practices reported by parents. Appetite, 52, 307-312.
Gregory, J.E., Paxton, S.J., Brozovic, A.M. (2010). Pressure to eat and restriction are associated with child eating behaviors and maternal concern about child weight, but not child body mass index, in 2-to-4 year old children. Appetite, 54, 550-556
Carnell, S., Cooke, L., Cheng, R., Robbins, A., Wardle, J. (2011) Parental feeding behaviors and motivations. A qualitative study in mothers of UK preschoolers. Appetite, 57, 665-673
Galloway, A.T., Fiorito, L.M., Francis, L.A., Birch, L.L. (2006). Finish your soup: counterproductive effects of pressuring children to eat on intake and affect. Appetite, 46, 318-23.