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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?

When food parenting is not aligned, kids not only may get mixed messages, they may develop unhealthy eating habits, which may influence their weight and relationship with food.

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

Intentionally, or unintentionally, food parenting is employed by the parent to influence a child’s eating, one way or another.

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

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

April 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 Food Parenting

April highlights just one area of food parenting, and that is 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:

How Much Control You Use

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

  • Restriction: limiting food amounts or types
  • Pressure to eat: reminding, cajoling and commenting on eating
  • Threats and bribes: using intimidation or rewards to motivate eating
  • Using food to control negative emotions: offering foods, such as dessert, to comfort a child

How Much Structure is in the Home

The system of food, meals and eating you set up in the home, which includes:

  • Rules and limits: Guidelines for eating
  • Limited/guided choices: Boundaries on less than healthy foods, encouragement and prevalence of nutritious foods
  • Monitoring: Awareness of the types and balance of foods that are eaten
  • Meal- and snack-time routines: The timing and location of them
  • Role modeling: Presence for meals; leadership with eating and food choices
  • Food availability and accessibility: shopping, regular meals, boundaries around food
  • Food preparation: Who does it? What basic values do you have about food preparation and food choice
  • Unstructured practices: For example, dining out, unexpected food items

How You Promote Autonomy in Your Child

The ability and encouragement of your child to learn about nutrition and make food choices on his or her own and 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
  • Praise: Sensitive and appropriate praise for food choices and other healthy lifestyle habits
  • Reasoning: Being able to understand food—the healthy qualities—and make decisions based on knowledge
  • Negotiation: How much say your child has in food decisions; parent flexibility with food

Obviously, a lot goes into food parenting.

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.

Restriction versus Reward

Restriction is a form of control, as is rewarding. Both may be used to sway eating behaviors.

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 Healthy 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.

Remember, parents set the stage for eating and food choice.

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.

Food Parenting 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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