How to Live with a Fussy Eater

If food fights are common with your child, rest assured knowing this study shows parents aren’t to blame.

By Emily Main

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Advice on living with a picky eaterGood news for parents of fussy eaters: You didn't create them. In an effort to find out what drives unhealthy eating patterns among children, researchers from University College London compared children's eating behaviors to their mothers' reactions to said behaviors and found that parents are usually responding to (not the cause of) fussy eating or overindulgence.

THE DETAILS: The authors collected questionnaire data from 244 mothers of children between the ages of 7 and 9. The moms filled out one survey related to their children's eating behaviors, agreeing or disagreeing with statements that measured how a child responds to food (for instance, "If allowed to, my child would eat too much"), their child's enjoyment of food, and whether their child ever avoids food (for instance, "My child gets full before his/her meal is finished" and "My child takes more than 30 minutes to finish a meal"). The second survey related to the mother's feeding habits, agreeing or disagreeing with statements like "If my child says ‘I’m not hungry’ I try to get him/her to eat anyway," or "If I did not guide or regulate my child’s eating, he/she would eat too much of his/her favorite foods." The authors found that what the mothers usually wanted from their children yielded the exact opposite result: Mothers who put more pressure on their children to eat were more likely to report having children who felt full before the end of a meal, ate slowly, were "fussy" eaters, or didn't enjoy food very much in general. On the other hand, mothers who were more restrictive of what their children ate (those who agreed strongly with the statement "If I did not guide or regulate my child’s eating, he/she would eat too much of his/her favorite foods") were more likely to have kids who they reported would eat too much if allowed.

WHAT IT MEANS: If you have a fussy eater or a child who overeats, it probably isn't your fault. While this study doesn’t rule out the possibility that kids are simply eating a certain way just to assert a little control over the dinner table, Laura Webber, doctoral student in the Health Behaviour Research Centre at University College London and lead author of the study, says that most likely the child's behavior is driving, not responding to, her mother's reaction. Eating behaviors are usually inherited, Webber says, so chances are, a fussy eater isn't being fussy simply to get a rise out of her mother (or overeating just because she was told not to). Essentially, she adds, "it is important that mothers do not blame themselves for their children's eating behaviors."

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