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Food Parenting: United We Should Feed

Not all the drama at the meal table is between parent and child. Sometimes, it’s between the adults. Learn about food parenting and how to better unite with your partner when parenting your children around food and eating.

food parenting

This post was updated in November 2019.

Is Your Food Parenting United?

Food parenting is the parenting that goes on around food and eating.

It’s a lot like parenting, in general. We want to be effective parents, and that applies to parenting around food, too.

When parents are not aligned in how they parent around food and their kids’ eating, not only do the kids get mixed messages, they may develop unhealthy eating habits, which may influence their weight and relationship with food.

Intentionally, or unintentionally, food parenting is used by parents or caretakers to influence children’s eating, one way or another.

Listen: Parent Effectiveness Training: How to Get the Best Out of Your Child

April, a follower of The Nourished Child blog, instinctively understands the importance of food parenting and writes:

“When we were dating, {my husband} told me he liked to eat healthy, which was great, because it is so important to me. Once we were married, however, I realized that our versions of “healthy” are very different. He’s definitely not the worst eater, but he does have some habits I don’t love. Since I am his equal and not his parent, I try to give him space to eat how he wants; I’ve found that just like children, the more I push it, the more he digs in his heels. I still wish I could help him develop healthier habits, for his sake, and also so he can help set an example for our children.”

Research about Parenting Food

April highlights just one area of food parenting: the importance of role modeling.

There are several areas, however, to address if you want to really take your food parenting to the highest level.

And, yes, getting in sync with your parenting partner is essential to making it all work.

Get in sync with your partner to parent around food effectively. #food #parenting #feedingkids Click To Tweet

The evidence and study of food parenting is gaining attention, particularly as parents and professionals seek to use the most effective means to encourage healthy eating, healthy weight, and a healthy relationship to food in children.

According to a 2016 Nutrition Reviews paper, food parenting includes:

1. How Much Control You Use

This is the power you use to get your kid to eat or not eat and may include:

  • Restriction: Your intentional limitation of food amounts or types to control your child’s eating behavior.
  • Pressure to eat: Reminding, cajoling and commenting on eating to get your child to perform.
  • Threats and bribes: Using intimidation or rewards to motivate your child’s eating
  • Using food to control negative emotions: Offering foods, such as dessert, to comfort your child.

Read: What Food Restriction Really Does to Kids

2. How Much Structure Is in Your Home

Structure is the system of food, meals and eating routines you set up in the home. It includes:

  • Rules and limits: These are your guidelines for eating. I did a podcast on this topic which you might want to listen to.
  • Limited/guided choices: This is how you help your child make decisions about food. Boundaries are the rules about eating less than healthy foods, encouragement and prevalence of nutritious foods.
  • Monitoring: The awareness you have of the types and balance of foods that your child is eating, or has eaten, during the day.
  • Meal- and snack-time routines: This is the timing and location of them.
  • Role modeling: Are you present for meals? Role modeling shows leadership with eating and food choices to your child.
  • Food availability and accessibility: This is the food in your home from grocery shopping trips, and what is served at meals and snacks, along with boundaries around food.
  • Food preparation: Who does it? This also includes the basic values you have about how you prepare food and the foods you choose.
  • Unstructured feeding practices: How do you manage dining out, unexpected food items, and extras?

3. How You Promote Autonomy in Your Child

In other words, how you encourage your child to learn about nutrition and make food choices on his own. Promoting autonomy includes:

  • Nutrition education: How you teach your child about nutrition.
  • Child involvement: Whether or not you let your child be involved with food, from preparation and experimentation, to cooking.
  • Encouragement: Allowing your child to discover and explore food and providing the support he needs to do so.
  • Praise: Sensitive and appropriate praise for food choices and other healthy lifestyle habits.
  • Reasoning: Your child’s ability to understand food—its health qualities—and using this knowledge to make decisions.
  • Negotiation: How much ‘voice’ your child has in food decisions; and your overall flexibility with food.

Obviously, a lot goes into food parenting. If you want the overview of parenting food, head over to my parent education website.

It’s not just saying no to food or allowing extras or treats.

In fact, being in sync with food parenting, including all the little facets, not only sends your child a clear message, it keep you and your partner conveying a united front.

It’s easy to see how things can get off track when food parenting isn’t aligned.

A Common Food Parenting Issue: Restriction and Reward

Restriction is a form of control, as is rewarding. Both may be used to sway a child’s eating behaviors. Often, parents toggle between telling a child no or controlling how much they eat, and gifting food for good behavior.

Take a look at this example:

Mom doesn’t want her daughter to eat more potatoes. She feels her daughter has had enough to eat. But, Dad says daughter has had a good dinner and she should be allowed a second serving.

Here, the parents aren’t united in their food parenting. Mom is using a restrictive approach to control how much her daughter eats (of what she sees as unhealthy or excessive).

Dad has a tendency to reward daughter for good eating performance.

I’ve highlighted how restriction and rewarding can play out in a child’s ability to self-regulate food intake and the overall development of a healthy relationship to food in previous posts.

These seemingly small and harmless interactions are actually quite powerful when it comes to a child’s developing food relationship and eating over time.

In the arena of food parenting, conflicting tendencies can also cause tension between caretakers, and send a mixed message to the child.

Be a Good Role Model

When you bring two adults together, as April mentions above, you don’t always get the guarantee they will have similar backgrounds, experiences and values when it comes to food and eating.

Food Parenting: United We Should Feed. #feedingkids Click To Tweet

We all come to the food parenting “table” with baggage, so to speak.

Read: What’s Your Feeding Style?

Yet, role modeling is how we teach our children how to eat, what the family’s diet looks like, and how to interact at the meal table.

For example, what constitutes a healthy diet may differ between parents. One parent may be picky about vegetables. Another my exclude entire food groups, such as meat or dairy.

I remember in the early days of feeding my own young family, the topic of eating vegetables came up between my husband and I.

I am a big fan of veggies and he, not so much.

We discussed how this fact would play out in front of our children.

We came to the decision that is was important for our kids to see him put at least a small amount of vegetable on his plate.

If he could eat it, then he would, and mostly, he did.

Children mimic a lot of what they see at the meal table. Role modeling how you want your child to eat, exercise, and live shapes his future habits.

Parenting Food Anchors Healthy Eating

Control, structure, and autonomy—the three key areas of good food parenting—anchor good parenting when it comes to your child’s food and eating.

When both parents are aligned, the child benefits. This is key to really raising a healthy eater.

Agreeing on food parenting at the table, setting up a system and structure around food, and equipping your child with food knowledge and experiences allows him to sort out the complicated world of food, while building a healthy relationship to food and self-regulating his food consumption.

Are you in sync with your parenting partner when it comes to food?

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Want to Improve Your Food Parenting Approach?

If you aren’t satisfied with your child’s eating or behavior around food, you may be interested in The Nourished Child Blueprint. It’s an online program for parents who want to master food, feeding and building autonomy in their child.

Additionally, if you’re a professional who works with families on feeding, you may be interested in my professional course, Food Parenting PRO. This is a recorded workshop for nutrition professionals, focused on helping nutrition professionals master feeding.

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