Health

Why Parents Shouldn't Force Food on Picky Children, According to a New Study

Coaxing children into eating their greens is a struggle that most parents have faced at some point, and it's a battle that could damage the parent-child relationship, according to a study. 

Researchers at the University of Michigan wanted to answer the question of whether parents should pressure children to eat, and if doing so affected children's weight, their tendency to become picky eaters and how they perceived their parents. 

The findings, published in the journal Appetite, suggest that forcing children to eat food they don’t enjoy could spark tension at mealtimes and damage the parent-child relationship.

What's more, making children eat unwanted foods didn't even affect their weight and whether they developed picking eating habits. 

Baby-feeding-parent-stock Parents who pressure children to eat foods they don't like risk damaging their relationship with their child, according to research. Getty Images

Dr. Julie Lumeng, director of the U-M Center for Human Growth and Development and a physician at C.S. Mott Children's Hospital, explained in a statement: “We found that over a year of life in toddlerhood, weight remained stable on the growth chart whether they were picky eaters or not.

"The kids' picky eating also was not very changeable. It stayed the same whether parents pressured their picky eaters or not."

The researchers recruited 244 children between 21 to 27 months old by posting flyers at community agencies for low-income families. Data on children, including their weight, sex, age, race, ethnicity, as well as sociological facts such as the structure of their family and their mother's educational attainment were collected in three stages. The participants also completed questionnaires rating pressure on feeding and picky eating behavior on a scale of one to 10. 

The team sought to corroborate their findings by comparing them to a dozen others on eating behavior, and came to similar conclusions. 

Lumeng explained that language such as "choosy" or "selective" is preferable to "picky" when describing a child's eating habits. "Picky," she said, holds children to an unattainable standard when our tastes are largely out of our control.

Read more: Five healthy habits for mothers that could cut their child's risk of becoming obese: Harvard study 

And while picky or choosy eating may be inconvenient and frustrating for parents, it rarely causes health problems such as stunted growth or nutrient deficiencies, said Lumeng. Therefore, most parents shouldn’t waste too much energy on trying to make children eat something they don’t like.

"The takeaway here is that pressuring children to eat needs to be done with caution, and we don't have much evidence that it helps with much," she said. "As a parent, if you pressure, you need to make sure you're doing it in a way that's good for the relationship with your child."

"Dealing with picky eating falls into the category of how can you do little things that might make meals better for everyone but not squelch something that may be part of your child's personality," she said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers a number of tips for parents who are worried about their child’s picky eating.

The agency recommends giving the children the chance to try a food on several occasions, even if they do not like it at first. “Children may need to try some foods many times before they like them," the CDC said. 

Freezing and defrosting small bits of food for a child to try can avoid waste. Waiting a week before presenting a child with food again and mixing a new food with produce a child enjoys can also aid in getting a child to try new foods.

“Favoring just a couple of foods or not wanting foods to touch each other on the plate are normal behaviors. These behaviors often go away by the time your child is about 5 years old,” according to the CDC.

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