Parental Feeding Practices and Child Nutrition

By: Jennifer Anderson, MSPH, RDN, LD 

Key messages

  • Nutrition in the first several years of life sets lifetime food preferences and eating practices
  • Teaching parents how to implement appropriate feeding practices at home enables an environment where children learn to prefer unprocessed, nutrient-dense foods, such as eggs.
  • Parents need to be educated about serving nutrient-dense foods, and responsive feeding and positive parenting techniques.

Nutrition in the first several years of life sets lifetime food preferences and eating practices.1 Proper nutrition in the toddler years is also critical for rapid development.2 In fact, because toddlers have small stomachs, they need a diet of nutrient-dense foods that are minimally processed, such as eggs.

Many parents, however, are faced with picky eating behaviors. Most parents do not have adequate training in parental feeding and child nutrition, and this often leads them to practices that may promote poor nutrition and obesity.3

Many parents do not understand that “picky eating” is a normal behavior observed in most children. As a result, they begin to use unhelpful strategies to overcome this “problem.” They employ tactics such as restriction, bribing, and pressuring to get their children to eat nutritious foods.4 Unfortunately, these tactics are associated with poor long-term nutrition and health outcomes.

Here’s a scenario. A mother learns that eggs are one of the densest food sources of choline, and choline is necessary for proper brain development. She feels strongly that she wants her child to eat eggs. She serves eggs to her two-year-old daughter. Her daughter rejects them. The mom is upset. She begins to pressure her daughter to eat them. She forces her daughter to take a bite and mealtime becomes unpleasant. Other times, she bribes her daughter to eat the eggs, using dessert as a bribe. Unfortunately, these feeding practices can lead to an increased risk of obesity and a decreased preference for eggs in the long run.

This is a common scenario,4 showing parents need both nutrition information and feeding practice information. Nutrition professionals have the opportunity to instruct parents on evidence-based feeding practices. This will help parents teach their children to learn to like healthy choices without causing a damaged relationship with food.

Evidence-based parental feeding practices4 include the following.5

Exposure to nutrient-dense foods. While parents often think that a child does not like a food after only serving it once or twice, it may take many exposures for the child to accept it. It is essential to instruct parents to serve nutrient-dense foods, like eggs, repeatedly, and in different forms. Along with serving them frequently, parents can be given techniques for helping children choose to taste foods.

Responsive feeding. This type of feeding is a structure6 in which parents decide where food is served, what food is served, and when food is served, while children, decide what they want to eat from what is provided, and how much to eat. Parents use hunger and satiety cues from the child to help the child preserve their ability to self-regulate food intake.

Positive parenting. This type of parenting encompasses warmth toward the child and encourages autonomy and self-efficacy in the child. Parents provide behavioral limits and also sensitivity to cues from the child. It also includes role modeling. Parents can be encouraged to model eating a nutrient-dense diet and provide structure around food and feeding.

Given the ubiquitous presence of highly processed low-nutrient food in the food supply, parents need both nutrition and practice information. They need instruction to feed their children nutrient-dense foods that fill important nutrient needs, such as eggs. They also need information about positive feeding practices to help their children learn to eat nutrient-dense foods in the short-term and long-term.

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian, mom of 2, and educates hundreds of thousands of parents @kids.eat.in.color on Instagram. She is the owner of Jennifer Anderson Nutrition, LLC, a public health company focused on chronic disease prevention and maternal mental health.

References

  1. Anzman-Frasca S., et al. Promoting healthy food preferences from the start: a narrative review of food preference learning from the prenatal period through early childhood. Obes Rev. 2018;19:576-604.
  2. Mameli C., et al. Nutrition in the First 1000 Days: The Origin of Childhood Obesity. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2016;13.
  3. Kiefner-Burmeister A., et al. Implementation of parental feeding practices: does parenting style matter? Public Health Nutr. 2016;19:2410-4.
  4. Daniels L. A. Feeding Practices and Parenting: A Pathway to Child Health and Family Happiness. Ann Nutr Metab 2019;74(suppl 2):29–42.
  5. Daniels L. Complementary feeding in an obesogenic environment: Behavioral and dietary quality outcomes and interventions. In: Black RE, et. al. Complementary feeding: Building the foundations for a healthy lifestyle. Nestlé Nutr Inst Workshop Ser. Volume 87. Basel: Nestec Ltd., Vevey/Karger AG; 2017. pp. 167–81.
  6. Black MM, et. al. Responsive feeding is embedded in a theoretical framework of responsive parenting. J Nutr. 2011;141:490-4.