Finding the right feeding style to fuel healthy kids

CALGARY- It’s a meal time childhood rule many adults remember well.

“I had to finish everything on my plate if I wanted dessert,” Calgary mom Tanis Tsavaras recalls. She has two children of her own and for them, that rule is no longer in play.

“I don’t want meals to have tension around them,” she explains. “Food is fuel, and it should be enjoyable and it shouldn’t be a source of stress.”

Pediatric nutritionist Jill Castle agrees. She says the so-called “clean your plate” rule is part of a feeding style  researchers have linked with poor appetite control and weight gain.

“[Children] become less aware of their appetite signals, and they may overeat because there are foods that are restricted or overly controlled.”

The authoritarian feeding style is one of four approaches identified by researchers, along with permissive, neglectful and authoritative. Only one has been associated with positive outcomes and good nutrition.

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“The authoritative feeding style is sort of the love with limits approach,” says Castle. “Children tend to eat more fruits, vegetables, dairy products and whole grains. They tend to be at a healthy body weight and they tend to have very good appetite regulation.”

Key to the authoritative feeding style is consistent meal times where parents offer foods that are 90 per cent healthy with the occasional treat. Parents are in charge of what’s for dinner, but kids decide how much they eat, even when it comes to dessert.

“I believe that if dessert is part of the menu than there are no strings attached,” explains Castle, adding that parents may choose to limit how often dessert is served to the family but they shouldn’t link dessert to whether the child eats all their vegetables.

Castle is the co-author of “Fearless Feeding” and writes regularly about pediatric nutrition on her blog:  Just the Right Byte.

A closer look at feeding styles

Authoritarian Feeding Style

  • “Parent-centred”
  • Includes eating rules, such as cleaning your plate before dessert
  • Certain foods may be off limits
  • Amount of food may be controlled
  • Associated with poor appetite control, picky eating, rebellious eating and weight gain

Permissive Feeding Style

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  • “Child-centred”
  • Parents likely to give in to frequent food request and complaints of hunger
  • Child has more control over what foods to eat
  • No structured meal times
  • Children may frequently eat out of boredom instead of hunger
  • Associated with weight gain as children are more likely to eat more sweets and snacks
  • Children may become pickier and less likely to try new foods

Neglectful Feeding Style

  • Irregular shopping, empty cabinets and refrigerators
  • No planned meal times
  • Children may feel insecure about food and eating
  • Associated with weight gain or weigh loss

Authoritative Feeding Style

  • Promotes independent thinking and self-regulation
  • Parents set boundaries by providing 90% healthy foods
  • Parents allows treats in moderation
  • Children involved in decision making and meal planning (within boundaries set by parents)
  • Children decide how much they eat at meal time
  • Associated with leaner kids more tuned in to their appetite.