The Important Role of Parents in Healthy Eating For Children
Stephanie Rahill PhD Researcher DIT, Kevin Street
Numerous healthy food initiatives and interventions have been rolled out across Ireland to promote the consumption of fruit and vegetables in children. Despite this, children are still not meeting the recommended 5-7 portions per day (1) with only 20% of children aged 10-17 in Ireland consuming fruit and vegetable more than once per day (2). You may ask why is this the case and what is preventing children from obtaining a healthy varied diet? Food fussiness may be a possible explanation as to why children refuse to eat particular foods, such as fruit and vegetables. A fussy eater can have many definitions but often parents refer to the fussy child as the one that ‘breaks my heart’, due to the turmoil that occurs during mealtimes. The current standard definition of food fussiness is the refusal of both familiar and new foods (3). High levels of food fussiness can reduce a child’s nutrient intake, which can impact on overall health and increase risk of underweight (4–6). As a result of fussy eating, mealtimes can become a very difficult and stressful time for parents, with mother-child conflicts arising (7),(8). In addition, feeding problems can persist from childhood into adolescence or even adulthood in some cases, and have been associated reduced diet quality and the development of eating disorders (9),(10).
Therefore, what are the determinants of food fussiness and how can one possibly prevent/overcome fussy eating? Recent research in this area has explored the various factors that predict food fussiness and examined whether age determines the extent to which these factors contribute to food fussiness. Findings from this study show that if a child enjoys and has an interest in food they are less likely to be fussy eaters, regardless of age. Enjoyment of food is more likely due to experiences with foods rather than genetic inheritance and can be achieved by engaging in activities that promote enjoyment instead of dissatisfaction. Another interesting finding from this research was the association between fussy children and fussy parents. Such that, higher levels of fussy eating among parents was a significant predictor of fussy eating in children, with this finding only significant in older children. Therefore, as a stronger relationship is evident in older children, it more likely that parental modelling is influencing it as opposed to the heritability of this eating behaviour. Alternatively, it may be the nurturing of the inherent trait through years of parental modelling. The other factor that was a significant predictor of food fussiness, regardless of age, was parents reporting their child’s food preference as a barrier to providing a healthy diet. This finding although expected, suggests that parents may not be exposing their children to a varied diet, which in turn may encourage fussy eating. Studies have shown that repeat exposure to a wide variety of foods can aid in the development of preferences for a food or flavour (53).
Parents need to be made aware of how much their own behaviour and actions can be mirrored by their child. Overall, in order to combat or avoid fussy eating a child should be raised in an environment that promotes a positive relationship with food. Parents form a very important part of this environment, and are responsible providing and modelling a healthy diet and lifestyle.
- Department of Health (2016) Your guide to healthy eating Healthy Food for Life: The Food Pyramid guide to every day food choices for adults, teenagers and children aged five and over. 2016.
- Kelly C, Gavin A, Molcho M, et al. (2012) The Irish Health Behaviour in School-aged Children (HBSC) Study 2010. 2012.
- Dovey TM, Staples PA, Gibson EL, et al. (2008) Food neophobia and “picky/fussy” eating in children: A review. Appetite 50,181–93.
- Galloway AT, Lee Y, Birch LL (2003) Predictors and consequences of food neophobia and pickiness in young girls. J Am Diet Assoc 103,692–8.
- Marchi M, Cohen P (1990) Early Childhood Eating Behaviors and Adolescent Eating Disorders. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 29,112–7.
- Jansen PW, Roza SJ, Jaddoe VW, et al. (2012) Children’s eating behavior, feeding practices of parents and weight problems in early childhood: results from the population-based Generation R Study. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 9,130.
- Sanders MR, Patel RK, Le Grice B, et al. (1993) Children With Persistent Feeding Difficulties: An Observational Analysis of the Feeding Interactions of Problem and Non-Problem Eaters. Heal Psychol 12,64–73.
- Gilmore L (2006) “You’re not leaving the table until you’re finished” : Problem Eating Behaviours and Mother-Child Conflict during Early and Middle Childhood. Proc Psychol Bridg TasmanScience, Cult Pract Ed by Katsikitis M Auckland, NZQUT eprints;2006.
- McDermott B, Mamun A, Najman J, et al. (2009) Longitudinal correlates of the persistence of irregular eating from age 5 to 14 years. Acta Paediatr 99,68–71.
- Kotler LA, Cohen P, Davies M, et al. (2001) Longitudinal Relationships Between Childhood, Adolescent, and Adult Eating Disorders. J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry 40,1434–40.