Your picky eater comes to the table, takes one bite, and announces she's done. Or declares that she now hates her formerly-favorite dinner. It's frustrating—and enough to make you resort to pleading, bribery, or demands to eat more. After all, it's your instinct as a parent to nourish your children. And when it seems like they're not eating enough, you worry that they won't grow well (and will never eat anything beyond buttered pasta and chicken nuggets!).
But according to a new study, pressuring kids to eat doesn't do much good. Researchers at the University of Michigan found that when parents pressured their toddlers at mealtime, it didn't affect their growth one way or another and had no impact on how picky they were a year later.
"The fact that we did not find a link between pressuring in feeding and future picky eating suggests either that picky eating is not especially changeable, just like it's hard to eliminate shyness in a shy child, or that reducing picky eating needs a different approach than just pressuring," says researcher Julie Lumeng, M.D., a professor of pediatrics at University of Michigan.
That's not to say that pressuring kids to eat is necessarily harmless either. "Pressuring in feeding can be considered controlling or intrusive, and we know from decades of research that controlling and intrusive parenting is not valuable for child well-being," she says.
Mealtime pressure can also worsen a child's eating habits over time, warns pediatric dietitian Natalia Stasenko. That's especially true if there are underlying reasons for a child's hesitation to eat, such as anxiety or oral motor problems. Even if a child's finicky habits are more garden-variety, pressure can negatively impact how a child feels about food and eating in general, she says.
What's more, though this particular study didn't show that pressure led to more weight gain, those tactics could contribute to a higher obesity risk as your child gets older. That's because pressuring kids to eat when they don't want to interferes with their ability to self-regulate (knowing when they're hungry and when they're full). Toddlers are typically good regulators, but that natural sense tends to diminish by age 4 or 5, says Stasenko. "The study wasn't long enough to study the effects of mealtime pressure on the ability to self-regulate and its relationship to obesity," she notes.
Since it's natural to be concerned about picky eating and how it might affect your child's habits in the long term, what can you do? Lumeng says children are more likely to try a new food if they see others eating and enjoying that food—especially if it's another child like a sibling or classmate. A "one bite rule" may help some children grow to like and accept new foods. Pairing a disliked foods with a liked food (like a new veggie with ranch dressing or ketchup) is a reasonable approach too, she adds.
Remember that experiencing a food without eating it is part of the process too, says Stasenko. "In order to try a new food, kids need to go through multiple levels of experiencing it in a pressure-free way, starting from seeing it multiple times, having a chance to interact with it, seeing other people eat it, touching it, smelling it, tasting it and finally eating it," she says. "All kids progress through these steps at their own speed."
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of the forthcoming book The 101 Healthiest Foods For Kids. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook Twitter Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.