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Don’t Force Kids to Eat. Period.

Don't force Kids to Eat

Forcing Kids to Eat

This post has been updated and revised.

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 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 to parent around food.

Parents have a tough time keeping it all together, not to mention keeping a positive feeding atmosphere and nurturing a healthy relationship with food at the same time.

Why Parents Use Pressure to Get Kids to Eat

In an effort to “take control” of eating and health, parents may force kids to eat by pressuring them to take another bite, or try a new food. Yes, it’s common, but in the long run, not a very good approach.

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 the toddler table for meals and wouldn’t sit for long at the table 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 pressuring, 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 frequently begins in toddlerhood.  Toddlers are erratic eaters, demonstrate irregularity in their appetite, and refuse food.

Their typical toddler development can throw parents for a loop and launch them into action: Controlling their child’s eating.

Is It OK to Force a Child to Eat?

Interestingly, in the long run, 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 experience pressure to eat differently. They may eat less or become 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 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.

The Latest Research on Forcing Kids to Eat

More recent research is exploring the type of pressure and how that influences 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/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.

Pressure 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 the pressure to eat.

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.

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 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: Restricting Your Child’s Eating and Rewarding Your Child for Eating.

Need More Help?

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.

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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.