For many parents, meal time can be a battle of wills, a stressful, tear-stained, bribery-fuelled nightmare.
You order your child to finish what's on his or her plate. Or, worried about the impact on your child's weight, you place a blanket moratorium on all sweet treats. Or you concede to your child's screams at the dinner table and make the grilled cheese sandwich she is begging to have for the sixth time that week.
How about the ever familiar, "Just one more bite of broccoli," and adding out of desperation: "or else you won't get a treat."
Unfortunately, the cajoling, arguments and threats that have become the norm at dinner tables across the country are much more likely to backfire than they are to promote a healthy relationship with food.
According to a new study, parents of overweight children try to restrict how much their kids eat, while parents of other children often push them to eat more than they want.
The study, published in the journal Pediatrics this month, identified a clear pattern of parents trying to control how much their children eat – a pattern that was often dictated by how much the parents weighed themselves. For instance, overweight parents were more likely to try to restrict food intake; the opposite was true of parents who aren't overweight.
But trying to control how much food your child eats is not benign. The study authors warn that telling your children what they can eat, and how much of it they are allowed to consume, "potentially then shapes further weight-related behaviors of the adolescent (and parent) and ultimately influences weight gain or loss over time."
Translation: Being a control freak at the dinner table can have major consequences for your child's overall weight and health. For instance, a 2004 study published in the journal Health Education Research found when parents use food to control behaviour – "If you behave while we're at the restaurant, you'll get dessert" – their children were more likely to have body image problems. The same report found when parents exerted high levels of control over what their kids ate and when, their children were more likely to eat larger amounts of both healthy and unhealthy snack foods.
Since then, numerous studies have confirmed that restrictions and control can lead to unhealthy eating habits and obesity. A 2009 analysis in the International Journal of Obesity said that to reduce the rising rates of obesity, children need to learn how to be healthy eaters from an early age. So how can that be accomplished? After studying a variety of methods, the authors write that teaching children about nutrition and allowing them to choose healthy foods in "positive contexts" is a good start.
But, they continue, "when the child-feeding environment is restrictive or coercive," problems, such as obesity, begin to creep in.
Part of the problem is that coercion has become so routine, it's hard to spot the problem, or fix it. Parents spend a lot of time laser-focused on how to get vegetables in their children, but too few are stepping back to evaluate how their strategy is working.
The good news is it doesn't have to be this way.
Dr. Jess Haines, an assistant professor of applied nutrition at the University of Guelph and a mother of two, knows firsthand how much of a struggle meal time can be. But she also counsels many parents on how to avoid some of the pitfalls that can sabotage their efforts to instill healthy habits in their children.
One of the biggest mistakes? Too many snacks. All too often, children get to the dinner table and don't eat enough because they've been grazing all day, Haines says. That might not be so bad, except that snack foods such as crackers or cookies often have little nutritional value.
Also, parents should never make a special meal to cater to a picky child. Haines tells parents they can "consider, not cater." The job of parents is to provide a variety of foods, and the role of children is to pick what they want to eat, Haines said. A make-your-own-burrito or salad bar is a good way to present a child with numerous healthy options and allow them to choose the items they want to eat.
And don't be afraid to introduce new items. Sometimes, children will have to see an item as many as 15 times before they will try it. Haines says to simply put the item on the child's plate. If he or she won't eat it, take the item away without comment and bring it back again later.
"Don't say anything about their choices," she said. "Let them choose."
And don't forget about the power of a positive role model. Studies show that when parents consume fruits and vegetables, their children are more likely to eat these foods, too.
Sometimes, persuading a child to eat a new vegetable simply means preparing it differently – presenting it raw if it is usually boiled, for instance.
Of course, many parents are quick to tell Haines these strategies won't work in their households.
"We always remind people new habits take a long time," she said.
Unlearning some of the negative behaviour related to food can be time-consuming and difficult, but the extra effort is usually worth it for everyone.