Dads: Are You a Food Micro-Manager?

As a petite, 35 lbs 5 year old girl I would stand with my hands on my hips and tell my 6 foot 1inch, 225 lbs, construction contractor father that I wasn’t going to finish the food on my plate. This created quite a conflict for him!  He certainly couldn’t treat me the way he did his men at work.  But I believe he did want to prove who was making the decisions.  However, forcing food does not help your child to maintain a healthy diet nor help your relationship with your child.

We all want our children to eat healthy foods and there are many ways to allow this to happen.  Our first job is to offer healthy foods often.  A hungry child will eat, so the more often healthy foods are offered, the more of them will be eaten.  But children are sometimes fearful of food, not hungry, or more interested in trying to get you what they want instead of eating.   All of these actions can lead to the same disastrous result: a power struggle of over who gets their way.

We can avoid this struggle by not over managing how much and what our child eats.  Remember, you offer what you would like your child to eat.  Then the rest is up to them.  They can eat and nourish their body or choose not to eat with the consequence of hunger coming very soon.  The beauty of this is that you were not the “bad guy” in this scenario.  Hunger caused the discomfort, the result of them choosing not to eat.

But some parents can not let go of this managerial stance and let hunger and fullness do its job.  They micro-manage a child’s eating.  These are the parents that you see deciding for the child what food should be eaten first.  Supposedly this insures that nutritious foods will be eaten first when the child is most hungry.  Perhaps, but a child given a variety of food over time will in fact choose foods that meet their nutritional needs.  Telling a child what they need to eat first undermines their need for some independence and their reliance and confidence in their own internal cues that guide them naturally.

I often hear “you need to take one more bite”, as if that last bite guarantees the exact amount of calories or nutrients necessary at that moment in time, or a parent who requires a child to eat a certain amount of a food.   A child instinctively knows how much food they need, the more we trust them the more they will make good decisions.

Interestingly, there have been several studies that show that the more we manage our children’s eating decisions, the more likely they are to become over weight and have emotional problems with foods.  One study observed parents eat a meal with their child.  Immediately after the meal the children were put in a room without parents.  There were activities in the room as well as a variety of snacks.  It was observed that the children whose parents had over managed their child’s lunch where more likely to eat again, right after lunch.   These children where also the ones who where already over weight.  So pick your battles carefully. A food fight is one you are both likely to lose.

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