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Parents, Don’t Force Kids to Eat

Dear Mom and Dad,

Please don’t force your child to eat.

I know. I know.

We all want our kids to eat, and we want them to eat well.

As a childhood nutrition expert, I’ve met many parents who want to improve their kid’s eating habits, or tweak the variety of foods they eat, or reminisces about the past when little Johnny “ate everything.”

But in today’s America (and maybe world), parent feeding is getting more complicated. Larger than life portions, convenience on every corner and high hopes (and a lot of pressure!) to raise healthy kids make it harder for parents like you to guide and govern food.

In this article, you will learn:

  • why parents are pressuring their kids to eat
  • the affect it has on kids eating (both short- and long-term) 
  • positive approaches to feeding kids

     

    Little boy with sad face and crossed arms. Don't force kids to eat.
    Photo credit: Sergio Vassio Photography

Pressure to Eat: Why Parents Use It

Parents have a tough time keeping it all together. They’re juggling work, kids, a personal life, and more. It’s a lot.

Making meals and snacks adds to the stress. When little Johnny won’t eat, it’s hard to keep a smile on the fact and a positive feeding atmosphere at the table.  

In an effort to “take control” of eating and health, you may unintentionally force your child to eat by begging him to take another bite, or try a new food.

Yes, it’s a common feeding practice, but in the long run, not a very good approach.

How a Picky Eater Responds to Pressure to Eat

Sally had a preschooler, Ashley, who was a picky eater. Sally referred to her daughter as a “grazer.”

Ashley was busy playing, exploring and having fun. So much so, she often didn’t want to come to her toddler table for meals and wouldn’t sit for long  to eat.  

Concerned that she was not getting enough food, Sally found herself frequently asking Ashley if she was hungry.

Sally left food in strategic places as little hints for Ashley to take a bite, such as in the playroom and the living room. When Ashley did sit to eat, Sally pressured her to eat more.

Sometimes she even forced her to take bites of food, even though she felt awful about it.

Forcing kids to eat, or what we know to be a feeding practice called Pressure to Eat, is a feeding practice that can be harmful over time. 

Although Sally had the best intentions (to improve Ashley’s eating), it wasn’t getting the job done. In fact, it was making things worse.

 

Pressuring or forcing kids to eat often begins in toddlerhood.  Toddlers are erratic eaters, demonstrate irregularity in their appetite, and some toddlers refuse to eat.

Their typical toddler development can throw parents for a loop and launch them into action: An all-out effort to control their child’s eating.

Should We Force a Child to Eat?

No, we shouldn’t force any child to eat. Would you like it if your spouse or partner forced you to eat? Take a bite of food? Try something new you with which you weren’t comfortable? Of course not. Our children need the same level of respect we would show a friend or family member.

The Research on Forcing Kids to Eat (Pressure to Eat)

In a nut shell, forcing kids to eat  may cause more harm than good.

Let’s break down what the child feeding research tells us. 

Researchers have found that kids who are reminded to eat (prompting) and pushed to eat more (pressuring or forcing) may indeed eat more, and perhaps, too much. This may contribute to the development of unhealthy weight.

On the other hand, kids may have different experiences with pressure to eat. They may eat less and/or become more picky with eating.

A study in Appetite (2006) by researchers Galloway and Birch, found that children experienced “early satiety” (early fullness) and didn’t eat more when forced to eat, or pressured to eat more.

They also showed that kids may develop a dislike for foods they feel pressured to eat, like vegetables.

Other Underlying Factors Affect Kids’ Eating

More recent research is exploring the type of pressure and how that influences kids’ eating.

For example, a 2018 study in Appetite showed that pressure to eat new foods was associated with eating when not hungry (e.g. bored, emotional), while pressure to eat familiar foods didn’t have this affect.

Other research looks at the chicken and egg argument: Are parents pushy or are they forcing kids to eat because kids are fussy eaters?

A 2017 study in Physiology & Behavior examined moms and young children, finding that picky eating predicted the use of pressure to eat.

In other words, parents use pressure to eat, or forcing, as a response to picky eating.

Another study in Appetite (2014) looked at 8 and 9 year old kids and the role of anxiety and perception of pressure at the table.

They found kids with symptoms of anxiety and depression more readily perceived pressure to eat from their parents.

Last, a 2016 Appetite study of college students looked at their recollections of parental pressure to eat at the table.

Researchers found that forcing kids to eat or parental pressure at the table was associated with problematic eating as young adults.

Forcing Kids to Eat Backfires

It was clear Ashley was becoming less interested in food, and eating less overall. Ashley seemed turned off by the constant availability of food, the reminders to eat, and the nudging to eat more.

And this was changing the feeding relationship between Sally and Ashley, setting it on a downward and negative spiral.

Sally was more and more worried about Ashley’s eating and her weight, so she pressured her more. Ashley became less and less interested in food, and was eating poorly.

Use Positive Feeding Practices, Always

It’s hard to know if you’re doing harm by pressuring or forcing kids to eat, because each child is different. Some kids may not be bothered by encouragement to eat.

Other kids can dig in their heels and be offended by being the recipient of pressure, or worse, force feeding. 

Forcing your child to eat can be a day-to-day feeding practice that comes from your feeding style.  Over time, it can be wearing on your child, and on your relationship.

If you feel you are too involved in your child’s eating, you may want to take a step away and check your feeding style, your feeding structure (regularity of meals and snacks) and your own emotions about your child’s eating performance.

[Read: How to Create a Predictable Meal Schedule Without Being Too Controlling]

Feeding your child is one of the most important jobs of parenthood, and it’s complicated and can be difficult.

Just as it takes a childhood to cultivate a broad palate and healthy relationship with food, childhood can also be mired with nutrition challenges for parents along the way.

Hang in there!

Do you force your child to eat? Or pressure him to take another bite? Or try new food?  How’s that working?

Stayed tuned for the next installments in this series: Food Restriction: What it Really Does to Kids and Bribing Your Child to Eat.

Need More Help with Parent Feeding?

My workbook Try New Food: How to Help Picky Eaters Taste, Eat & Like New Foods will take you through my step-by-step system for helping your child try new food without pressure or force.

Other Helpful Articles to Read about Child Eating:

How to Get a Child to Eat When He Refuses

12 Reasons Why Your Child Won’t Eat

Get Kids to Eat? That’s Not the Goal

Food Parenting: United We Should Feed

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  1. Great post! We all have an instinct to feed our children, so if they don’t eat it worries us. But kids who don’t eat much (within reason) will probably be healthier than the rest of us in today’s world!

  2. Great post! As a father of twins, I know first hand how hard meal times can be. Often times I feel torn. The RD-half of me argues with the parenting-half. I constantly have to work to try to give my kids the space and time to eat. I’ve learned (through some great books by Ellyn Satter) that my job as a parent/RD is to provide a nutritious and tasty meal. It’s my kids job to eat it. Remembering that has really helped me and my family make meal times much more enjoyable and much less of a struggle. Again, thanks for the great post.

    1. You’re welcome–i am glad you enjoyed it. I think prompting/pressuring is something that stems, in part, from our fast-paced world. As RDs, we have the extra knowledge to help us see the long term impact of such actions–we just need to help the rest of the world understand that there is more to nutrition than what we eat.