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Feeding Practices: Pressuring Kids to Eat

We all want our kids to eat, and we want them to eat well. I haven’t met a parent yet who isn’t looking to improve their kid’s eating habits, tweak the variety of foods they eat or looks to the past when little Johnny “ate everything.”

But in today’s America (and maybe world), feeding children is complicated. Hampered by larger than life portions, convenience on every corner and high hopes (and pressure) to raise healthy kids, parents have a tough time putting it all together–not to mention keeping feeding positive and nurturing at the same time.

In an effort to “take control” of their child’s health, pressuring kids to eat is common, but in the long run, it may backfire.

Welcome to our Parent Feeding Practices series, where we look at the tactics parents use to get their kids to eat and how they effect kids’ eating.

Sally had a preschooler, Ashley, who was a picky eater. Referred to as a “grazer,” Ashley was busy playing, exploring and having fun–so much so, she often wouldn’t sit at the table to eat.  Concerned that she wasn’t getting enough, Sally frequently asked Ashley if she was hungry, left food in strategic places, such asthe playroom and the living room, and when she did sit to eat, Sally pressured her to eat more.

This feeding practice is called prompting and pressuring. And while Sally had the best intentions (to improve Ashley’s eating), it wasn’t getting the job done.

Pressuring often begins in toddlerhood.  Erratic eating, swings in appetite, food refusal and typical toddler development can throw parents for a loop and launch them into action: taking over their child’s eating.

Interestingly, in the long run, pressuring kids to eat may cause them to lose their ability to self-regulate their own eating.

Researchers have found that kids who are reminded to eat (prompting) and pushed to eat more (pressuring) may indeed eat more, and perhaps too much. This can be a contributor to the development of overweight and obesity.

On the other hand, kids may experience prompting and pressuring differently: eating less or even becoming more picky. A study in Appetite (2006) by researchers Galloway and Birch, found that children experienced “early satiety” (early fullness) and didn’t eat more when pressured. They also showed that kids may develop a dislike for foods they feel pressured to eat, like vegetables.

This is what was happening with Ashley. It was clear that she 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.

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 and prompted more. And Ashley became less and less interested in food, and was eating poorly.

Do prompting and pressuring always backfire?

It’s hard to know if you’re doing harm with prompting and pressuring, because each child is different and some kids may not be bothered by encouragement to eat. But, prompting and pressuring can be a day-to-day feeding practice that comes from your feeding style and 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.

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 relationship with food, childhood can also be mired with nutrition challenges for parents along the way. Hang in there!

Do you have an experience with prompting or pressuring your child to eat? How did it go?

Stayed tuned for the next installments in this series: Restricting Your Child’s Eating and Rewarding Your Child for Eating.

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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.