Inside: Find out why pressuring your kid to eat more can actually backfire–plus 10 things to do instead!
It’s spaghetti night, your child’s favorite.
She hops into her seat, takes one bite of noodles, and announces she’s done.
“But you love spaghetti,” you say in disbelief.
“No I don’t,” she answers.
Instantly, you feel your blood pressure rising.
You made a meal you thought was a slam-dunk. She hasn’t eaten in hours, so she’s got to be hungry. And you know she likes spaghetti because she scarfed down two bowls of it last week.
So you offer a deal: “Two more bites and you can get down from the table.”
Or you make a promise: “If you eat your spaghetti, you can have a cupcake.”
Or maybe you issue a threat: “If you don’t eat at least five bites of dinner, we’re not watching a movie tonight.”
And That Works, Right?
Sometimes pressuring kids to eat seems to work. You get a few extra bites and grams of protein into your child, plus a (fleeting) sense of relief.
After all, it’s our instinct to nourish our kids. So when it seems like they’re not eating enough, it’s natural to worry. We worry they won’t get the nutrition they need, that they won’t grow well or be healthy, and that they’ll never learn to like anything beyond buttered pasta and chicken nuggets.
As a registered dietitian, I assumed my kids would be the world’s best eaters (yeah, right!). So if they barely ate their meal, I felt it was practically my duty to instruct them to take “three more bites of chicken and two more bites of peas”.
Then I reconsidered: How was I to know how hungry my kids were? And how would I feel if my husband told me to take three more bites of my dinner when I was already full?
The truth is, those few extra bites we get into our kids just aren’t worth the long-term trade-offs.
The Pitfalls of Pressuring Kids to Eat
Kids are natural intuitive eaters: They eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full.
When we tell kids how much to eat or pressure them to eat when they don’t want to, it interferes with that ability to self-regulate.
We’re all born with that ability. But things go haywire when, for instance, you start eating because it’s noon (not because you’re hungry) or don’t eat even though you’re hungry (because you’re trying to lose weight).
Pressuring kids to eat can teach a child to eat when they’re not hungry and to eat beyond fullness. Even worse, research shows it can lead to negative feelings about food.
In one study, children ate less food and made more negative comments at mealtime when they were pressured to eat versus when they weren’t pressured.
In other research, college students were asked to remember if they’d ever been forced to eat a certain food as a child. Not surprisingly, most of them (72 percent) said they won’t eat that food to this day.
The “two more bites” pleas aren’t helping kids’ growth either. In a study from the University of Michigan, when parents pressured their toddlers at mealtime, it didn’t affect their growth one or way or another (and had no impact on how picky their kids were a year later).
Why Parents Pressure
How we were fed–and how we parent in general–may play a part in whether we pressure our kids to eat.
For example, maybe your partner was a card-carrying member of the Clean Plate Club when they were a child and expects the kids to be the same.
Or maybe the pressure you got at the dinner table was so upsetting (or even traumatic) that you vowed never to push your own kids when it comes to food.
As for me, I always heard “Only eat as much as you can” growing up. So I regularly left food on my plate when I got full–and still do as an adult.
Your parenting style plays a role too. Researchers have found that people who have a more “Authoritarian” style of parenting tend to use more pressure at the table. These parents tend to exert more control over their kids in general. Where food is concerned, they’re more likely to use tactics like withholding dessert or demanding that their kids clean their plates.
Though the goal is to have more control over their kids’ eating, this type of parenting is actually linked to more picky eating behaviors among kids, not less.
Here’s Some Good News
Just as research has uncovered why pressure can be counterproductive, it has also revealed a few things that seem to help kids develop positive eating habits. These “positive mealtime strategies” include:
- Allowing Choice: Let your child choose from the foods served. Serving “family style” as much as possible makes that easier (read more here: The Best Way to Serve Dinner to a Picky Eater).
- Making It Look Good: This could be as simple as arranging something into a smiley face for younger kids–or just making sure the food looks appealing. After all, we “eat first with our eyes”, including kids.
- Involving Your Child: Have your child be a part of planning, shopping for, or preparing the meal. Having a stake in the meal may encourage kids to take part in it.
- Being an Influencer: When kids see their caregivers eating a food, they’re more likely to eat it too. In one study, toddlers and preschoolers were more likely to eat something when they saw adults in the room eating that same food too, especially if that person was mom.
10 Things To Do Instead of Pressure
Here are some strategies to use the next time your child rejects his formerly-favorite dinner or eats less than you expect:
1. Make “I trust my child” your new mantra
Your child was born with the ability to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full. Let your child be in charge of how much she eats. This can be scary at first. But remember that how much they eat for one meal or one day doesn’t matter–it’s how your child is eating overall.
2. Serve your child less food
Sounds counterproductive, but if your child is reluctant to eat at mealtime, start serving less food. A large amount of food can look overwhelming to a child, while a few bites seems more doable. Always have seconds and thirds on hand if they want more.
What if…Your child won’t eat unless you apply pressure? If you’re worried that your child isn’t eating enough, is losing weight, or is often upset at the dinner table, talk to your child’s pediatrician about your concerns and check out this article about ARFID, a selective eating disorder.
3. Wrap it up
If your child doesn’t want to eat a meal, simply wrap their plate and save it for later. This isn’t a punishment, just a way to honor when they’re hungry. Read more here: What to Do if Your Kid Won’t Eat Dinner.
4. Repurpose leftovers
Save parts of your child’s unfinished food, like carrot sticks or rice, for a snack or lunch box later. Whatever you do with that leftover food (even simply composting it) will be better than teaching your child that he should continue to eat even if he doesn’t want to.
5. Avoid praise for clean plates
Praise shouldn’t be linked to how much a child eats–just as scolding shouldn’t be aimed at a child who isn’t eating. Kids aren’t “good” or “bad” because of what or how much they eat.
What if…Your child refuses to eat dinner then asks for a snack 10 minutes later? It’s maddening, isn’t it? Check out this simple strategy that worked for us.
6. Give lots of exposure
This is a marathon, not a sprint. Kids may need to see or try a food many, many times before it’s accepted or liked. Keep offering a variety of foods, serving them in different ways. Let your kids see you enjoying them, but let them explore these foods at their own pace. See my own success story here: I Was A Picky Eater. Here’s What I Want You To Know.
7. Fire yourself as boss
Have you ever said “Two more bites of chicken and three more bites of corn?” Let your kids decide how much they eat. Feeding expert Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding states that you are in charge of what is served and when, and your child is in charge of how much and whether they eat. It’s actually very freeing!
8. Reconsider “Just One Bite”
Asking your kids to take “just one bite” of a new food may help some children discover new favorite foods. For others, it can cause needless drama and stress at the table. You know your kid best. If “just one bite” is triggering tears or fears, it’s not worth it. Read: Should You Make Your Kids Take “Just One Bite”?
What if…Your child won’t eat dinner then asks for dessert? Sounds crazy, but serving a portion of sweets with the meal may actually be the solution you need. Here’s why serving dessert with dinner can work–and how to do it.
9. Come clean with your kid
If your child is used to getting pressure at the table or being told how many bites to take, they may be thrown for a loop when that stops. So explain “I know I used to tell you how much to eat, but I’m going to trust you to be in charge of that now.”
10. Check in with daycare and school
Some kids are pressured to eat by (well-meaning) teachers and caregivers. According to research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, child-care workers often use “controlling feeding practices” during mealtime like pressuring kids to eat certain foods while restricting others, praising kids for cleaning their plates, and giving “treat” food as rewards for eating “healthy” food.
If your child is getting pressure at mealtime at daycare or school, talk to the child-care providers or teacher. Feeding expert Katja Rowell created a Lunch Box Card that you can print, laminate, and put in your child’s lunch box that asks teachers not to interfere with what or how much your child eats.