People eat for reasons other than hunger. They eat when bored, to celebrate, or to get through difficult times. But what no one talks about is how these habits develop in the first place. Do people engage in this behavior because food is plentiful or is it a learned behavior?
Parents have the power to keep children from making food associations that cause them to over or under-eat. But like any dietary pattern, kids tend to follow their parents’ footsteps. So like most of the advice given on this blog, it applies to the whole family.
Here are 5 mistakes parents make when feeding their children – and how to fix them.
1. Eating to cure boredom
You don’t need me to tell you that kids get bored very easily. Sometimes parents offer food to distract their kids from boredom, or kids say “I’m hungry” which really means they’re bored. Of course, doing this once in a while won’t hurt but getting into a regular habit of offering food to occupy time backfires. That’s because kids learn that eating is the solution to boredom. And food – when used to solve non-food problems – always makes matters worse.
Instead, stick to consistent meals and snack times for you and your children. When your kid gets bored let them feel bored. You can also suggest solutions that will help with boredom like completing chores (haha!), playing with an underutilized toy/game, or working on a project. Or you can ask them what they think they should do. Soon they will learn the skills to combat boredom.
2. Using food to distract from uncomfortable feelings
It’s understandable that parents want to ease their children’s bad feelings. Offering favorite foods to a child is tempting but it teaches kids the wrong lesson – that food is the solution to difficult feelings. Food only temporarily makes kids feel better, and they fail to learn how to manage difficult emotions. In one study, kids who were fed in response to negative emotions ate more cookies in the absence of hunger than those not fed in this way.
Instead, let your child feel upset and encourage them to talk about what’s bothering them. If you find them seeking food on their own, talk to them about it. Teaching your child to accept and manage difficult emotions as a regular part of life is a vital life skill.
See this podcast episode with Kelly Meier for tips on how to communicate with your child.
3. Rewarding behavior with comfort foods
There are many ways parents can use food to reward children – saying they can have cookies if they finish their dinner or clean their room. If they do well in school a parent might offer a child an enticing meal or favorite food. What’s the big deal? This post details the research showing that rewarding and punishing kids with food increases the likelihood they will emotionally eat.
Instead, provide your child (and yourself) with your favorite high-calorie, palatable foods sensibly throughout the week as a regular part of meals and snacks. For example, cookies and milk as a snack on Monday, chips with lunch on Wednesday, and fries over the weekend. This teaches kids how to eat the high-calorie foods as part of a balanced diet – and makes comfort foods less of a focus.
4. Allowing snacking during screen time
In the age of screens, it’s so easy for kids to want to nash while watching TV or going on their IPad. The problem is two-fold. First is diet quality. Eating while watching TV is associated with poor diet quality. And second, eating while distracted with other activities negatively affects meal memory. So when they go to eat their dinner later, they tend to forget what they ate while distracted and eat as if they didn’t consume that earlier snack. (See The Power of Paying Attention at Meals).
I’m not talking about having popcorn while watching a movie on Saturday night. But making the rule of “only eat at the table” and making sure you the parent follow it too is a smart move. Having a designated place for meals and snacks (like the kitchen table) will decrease the likelihood that your kids will associate eating with such a sedentary activity.
5. Eating in the car
One final food association that can cause poor regulation of food intake is eating in the car. Once a child gets used to noshing while riding in the car they will expect food in the car and want it even when they aren’t hungry. Don’t get me wrong. There are times (more like emergencies!) that you’ll need to feed your child in the car – even to distract them. Like anything, make it occasional so a habit never develops.
Male mealtime your family’s sacred time, something to be enjoyed and savored. When we bring food and eating into other “non-food” areas we not only increase the likelihood of over or undereating, we leave problems unsolved. Let your children keep their gift of eating when hungry and stopping when full. And then make them your role model.
- Stop mindless eating once in for all by giving one of Maryann’s books a try:
Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters From High Chair to High School