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Food Parenting

Practical Food Parenting Practices

Your parenting style, or ‘parenting practice’ refers to your behaviors or actions - intentional or unintentional - that influence your children’s attitudes, behaviors or beliefs. Food parenting is one of those practices that use a specific method to influence a child’s eating and relationship with food. These methods can have a big impact on the long-term health and wellbeing of your child. 

There are 4 food parenting practices used to guide and support children’s eating habits and behaviors - let’s explore.

1. Responsive food parenting

When parents respect their child’s hunger and fullness cues, they’re engaging in responsive food parenting.

This style of food parenting helps baby develop a natural ability to identify when their body is full so they stop eating. In supporting this ability, they can better understand when they’re actually hungry, and not just eating to improve their emotional wellbeing (called emotional eating). Ultimately, it sets the stage for helping  baby regulate their own appetite – a useful skill for a lifelong healthy relationship with food.

You can ensure you remain responsive to baby’s feeding by:

    • Looking closely at their appetite cues, including body language and verbal cues
    • Responding to those appetite cues, especially fullness. If you’re aware baby is full, it’s time to stop the meal, even if they haven’t finished everything
    • Monitoring your child’s eating so you can stay attentive and appropriately reactive through feeding

2. Non-responsive food parenting

Non-responsive feeding practices fail to acknowledge a baby’s appetite cues. In some instances, parents might not provide food when baby is showing signs of hunger. In others, they may offer food when baby is not hungry. This can lead to feelings of insecurity around food and a higher likelihood of overeating when food is provided, risking baby’s ability to regulate their appetite. 

Non-responsive feeding often occurs in two scenarios: when parents aren’t around or engaged with their baby during feeding, or when parents are ignoring their baby’s appetite signals.

3. Controlling food parenting

Controlling food parenting means all decisions regarding food (like the kind, quantity, and time of consumption) are made entirely by the parent. In this approach, the parent - rather than baby - makes decisions about what, when, or how much baby should eat.

The two most common controlling food parenting practices are pressuring to eat healthy foods and restricting unhealthy foods. These practices, however, can affect children’s eating habits in a number of ways. For one, they can lead to the development of negative associations with certain foods. It can make unhealthy foods more desirable as they are usually forbidden. It can also stop children from recognizing and responding to their natural hunger and fullness signals, which can lead to overeating later in life.

You can ensure you don’t use excessively controlling feeding methods in a number of ways:

    • Check portion sizes and make sure you’re not serving baby too much or too little food
    • Trust baby’s tummy. Eating when hungry and stopping when full is a behavior we want to safeguard, not undermine, so really listen and respond when they are hungry and full
    •  Monitor what and when your child is eating to give you an insight into what they like and the timing of meals and snacks

4. Instrumental food parenting

Instrumental food parenting practices use food as a reward in order to regulate behaviors or emotions. Instrumental and emotional feeding has been associated with unhealthy dietary patterns. Common practices in this approach include restricting certain types of food, pressuring children to eat and rewarding positive behaviors with food.

This style can impact a child in several ways. When a certain food (usually sweet) is used as a reward to regulate a child's behavior, that food then becomes more desirable than foods that aren’t used as a reward (like veggies). That means using food to regulate the child's emotions (such as giving a snack to calm a temper tantrum) may lay the groundwork for later emotional eating and has even been associated with childhood obesity.  

Parents can improve this practice by offering tangible, non-food rewards for behavior instead such as stickers, toys or outings. Non-tangible items also work well, such as praise or support in the form of kisses and hugs.

A learned behavior

You might recognize the food parenting practice that your parents used when you were growing up and how this affected your relationship with food. And, although you may instinctively pass this on to your children, it’s important to understand what these practices mean so you can make a conscious decision about how you shape your child’s relationship with food.

Disclaimer: The information provided is the opinion of Good Feeding, it has not been evaluated by healthcare professionals, and is for educational purposes only.  Before starting any new foods or feeding practices, please consult your baby's healthcare professional.

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