WHAT IT MEANS: If you have a fussy eater or a child who overeats, it probably isn't your fault. While this study doesn’t rule out the possibility that kids are simply eating a certain way just to assert a little control over the dinner table, Laura Webber, doctoral student in the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London and lead author of the study, says that most likely the child's behavior is driving, not responding to, her mother's reaction. Eating behaviors are usually inherited, Webber says, so chances are, a fussy eater isn't being fussy simply to get a rise out of her mother (or overeating just because she was told not to). Essentially, she adds, "it is important that mothers do not blame themselves for their children's eating behaviors."
So what is the appropriate reaction for moms with fussy eaters or over-indulgers? Here are a few tips:
- Maintain control at the dinner table. "Mothers should take control and attempt to encourage their children to try new foods and eat healthily, rather than giving in to their demands," says Webber.
- Limit the drama. When parents label their kids "picky" or "fussy," the children pick up on that, says Sarah Krieger, MPH, registered dietician with the American Dietetic Association. "Then it becomes a license to not try new foods," she says. If you're the parent of a fussy eater, serve food in a very matter-of-fact way, she says. "Have no emotion on your face." If the child refuses it, just take it away and try serving it again in a few days. Don't beg and plead with them to try it, she adds.
- Feed children when they're hungry. "The number one tip I tell parents is to make sure your kids are hungry when serving a meal, snack, or whenever you want them to eat nutritious foods," Krieger says. "It seems like common sense, but it's amazing what kids will try when they're hungry." It also helps teach children that it's OK to be hungry so they're less likely to eat constantly, or when they're bored.
By the same token, she says, watch your child's liquid intake. "Anything that offers calories without a lot of nutrition (like lemonades) can fill up tummies," she says. Keep children from drinking any kind of caloric beverage two hours before a meal. If necessary, make the kitchen off limits during certain times of the day so children won't fill up on either drinks or snacks before meals.
- Plan after-dinner activities. Boredom is a powerful motivator for overeaters, says Krieger. "If you notice that a child wants to eat an hour after dinner, when it isn't physically possible that they're hungry, it can be more of a cry out for something to do," she says. So instead of arguing with your child about the fact that she just ate, take her outside for a walk, or have some other activity lined up as a distraction.
- Make dinners a family affair. "Encourage children to help make their lunch or dinner," Krieger says. "Kids are more likely to try and eat more fruits and vegetables when they make them themselves." And planning meals together also helps teach kids about portion control. When you do sit down at the table, make it a pleasant experience, she says. Don't fight over how much a child is or isn't eating, because then "It turns into a power struggle, and it's not worth it." Most important, be a good role model. Parents who eat healthy foods will set good examples for their children.