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What’s Your Feeding Style?

This post was updated in April 2019.

You have a hair style, a fashion style you emulate, a style of walking and talking, and more.

You also have a parental feeding style — or maybe several parental feeding styles.

As a pediatric nutritionist, I spend quite a bit of time discussing this topic with my clients, as well as talking about it on my podcast and this blog.

In this article, I will outline the four common parental feeding styles, their impact on your child’s eating, and highlight how they show up in the day-to-day feeding of your child.

Do you know your parental Feeding Style?

 

What is a Parental Feeding Style?

Parental feeding styles summarize the general attitudes and philosophies a parent has about feeding their child. There are four parental feeding styles: Controlling, Indulgent, Uninvolved and Diplomatic. Each feeding style influences our daily interactions around the meal table and our child’s eating habits and relationship with food.  

The Hardest Job of Parenthood

Feeding your child is arguably one of the most time-consuming and grueling jobs of parenthood.  It’s often thankless, and sometimes plagued with parental insecurity and low confidence. Many parents struggle and muddle through the process of feeding their children. 

Not to mention the daily effort of feeding a child can be overwhelming. Think about all the planning, procuring, preparing, serving, and cleaning up that goes along with feeding a family.

It’s a lot!

Here is a sobering statistic: throughout an 18 year childhood, you will probably feed your child over 28,000 times (assuming you provide the recommended age-appropriate meals and snacks). 

You really need to know how to raise a healthy eater, and in particular, how your feeding style plays into the big picture.

Child eating an ear of corn. Parental Feeding Styles

How do Parenting and Feeding Styles Relate?

Researchers in the area of feeding kids suggest that feeding styles, or the attitude you use in the process of feeding your child, will closely mirror your parenting style.

When you see other parents parenting, you probably recognize that everyone has their own style. You may also be attracted to those parents who parent like you.

Did you know that how you parent and how you feed your child are typically aligned? Each person has a style of their own when it comes to feeding and parenting. 

Generally, you use one feeding style most of the time, but it can overlap and mingle with a different feeding style.

Childhood Informs Our Feeding Strategies

Our parental feeding style also tends to mimic our experiences as a child. For example, if you had to finish your meal before you were allowed to leave the table, then you may require your own child to do the same. 

Your feeding style is deeply ingrained, and may become your “go to” method for feeding.

Discover Your Parental Feeding Style

Your feeding style warrants attention. Not only are food and nutrition important considerations in the health of your child, the magnitude of daily feeding interactions is equally, if not more, important.

Additionally, as I mentioned,  you likely have one feeding style that is prevalent in your day to day feeding interactions with your child. However, you can dip into each and every one of these styles from time to time.

For example, when you’re stressed and busy, you might be uninvolved in feeding your child. When you’re in party mode, you may be indulgent. When your child is picky and underweight, you might find yourself becoming more controlling with feeding.

Let’s take a look at the four different parental feeding styles and see where you end up!

Child being forced to eat showing parental feeding styles such as the controlling feeding style.

The Four Parental Feeding Styles

The scientific literature recognizes four different feeding styles. Over time, some of these descriptive names have changed,  and more recently they are being redefined under the term “food parenting.”

As such, I have taught a course for nutrition professionals to help them understand this new material.

Keep reading to the bottom, as I’ve saved the most desirable feeding style for last. It’s the one that you’ll want to start working toward.

The Controlling Feeding Style

This parental feeding style is also known as a “parent-centered” feeding approach. In the realm of feeding, this style is associated with “The Clean Your Plate Club,” where rules about eating reign, from trying new foods to completing a meal.

Here are some of the common “rules” a controlling feeding style might show:

Dessert is contingent upon eating dinner.

Parents plate the food for their children.

Eating is directed by the parent, such as “take another bite” or “finish your food,” rather than self-directed by the child and his natural appetite. 

The child may not have much say in food choice, and his food preferences and appetite may be ignored by the parent’s wishes around diet quality and eating.

As a result of this feeding style, children may lose a sense of their appetite and an ability to regulate it well. They may overeat to comply with parental requests to eat more or finish the plate of food. Or, they may eat less than they need because they are pushed or pressured too much.

Weight problems, both underweight and overweight, are associated with this feeding style. 

The Indulgent Feeding Style

Being indulgent in your feeding style is also known as the lax or loose style of parenting around food. I often refer to the permissive parent as “The ‘Yes’ Parent.”  

A parent with this style shows the following characteristics: 

Even though “no” or limitations may be the first response to extra food requests or treats, “yes” ultimately reigns.  

The rules and limits around food and eating are lax, or loose.

The parent is hyper-sensitive to food preferences and requests.

The classic example of this is the mother who is attempting to manage the vocal child in the grocery store who wants candy at the checkout stand.  He begs and begs, hearing, “no, no, no…” until Mom is worn down and says, “Well….okay, I guess so.”  

Children raised with an indulgent style of feeding have a tough time self-regulating their food intake, particularly around sweets. I frequently see a lack of structured meals and snacks, as well as a lack of food boundaries.

As a result, children may struggle with their weight, as research shows there may be few limits on high calorie foods.

The Uninvolved Feeding Style

An uninvolved feeding style is less studied in the literature, but as a practitioner, I have seen it in action.

A parent who has an uninvolved feeding style is often:

Ill-prepared in the food department, not shopping for food regularly. Cabinets and refrigerators may be empty or lacking in a variety of food.

There may be no plan for meals, or meals may be left to the last minute.

Food and eating may lack importance to the parent, and that may transfer to feeding their child.

Children who experience an uninvolved feeding style may feel insecure or nervous about food, being unsure about when they will have their next meal, if they will like it, or whether it will be enough.  

These children may become overly focused on food and frequently question the timing and details around mealtime.

The Diplomatic Feeding Style

I call this the “Love with Limits” feeding style, because it promotes independent thinking and eating regulation within your child, but it also sets boundaries your child is expected to operate in.

The diplomatic feeding style focuses on the details around the meal (what will be served, when it will happen, and where it will be served), but allows the child to decide if they will eat what is prepared, and how much they will eat.  

This diplomacy in feeding is based in The Division of Responsibility, coined by Ellyn Satter, and the research in this feeding practice.

Trusting your child — his ability to recognize hunger and fullness signals and then eat the amount of food to satisfy those cues — forms the basis of the diplomatic feeding style.

Food boundaries or limits also compose the foundation of this feeding style.

Children raised using this feeding style tend to be leaner, good at regulating their food consumption, and secure with food and eating, according to the research. 

In fact, the most current research advocates this style of parental feeding style as an effective childhood obesity prevention approach. 

I notice that parents who approach feeding kids in this manner have fewer struggles with healthy eating in their kids!

 


So, what’s your feeding style and how is it affecting your child?

Want to learn more about nourishing your child, inside and out? Tune into my podcast or enroll in my program, The Nourished Child Project!

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Various kids eating representing Parental Feeding Styles
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  4. This is a great post! I have an 11 month old son and both my husband and I are “learning” to be authoritative parents. You hit it right on when you mention the balance between having boundaries yet maintaining trust. Thank you for the wonderful guidance and reminding me how many more meals I get to serve my son before he turns 18 (I probably have 27,000 to go)!

    1. Thanks for your comments, Ashley. Yes, it can daunting when you think about the sheer impact feeding has on a child’s life! Stay tuned for how you can become an authoritative feeder!

  5. Great post! I think this is such an important topic for parents and many don’t even realize how their actions affect their children. So great to have experts in this field educating the masses!
    -jessica

    1. Thank you, Jessica! Yes, if we can influence parents early on, then hopefully we can prevent some of the feeding techniques that may be supporting weight discrepancies.