"Yay! You cleaned your plate!"
"You have to eat three more bites of your healthy food!"
"If you're good today, we can have cookies!"
Sound familiar? They're all things that kids frequently hear (maybe you heard it when you were a child, too). There's actually a term for it: Controlling feeding practices (CFP), and it includes pressuring kids to eat healthy foods, restricting unhealthy foods, praising kids for cleaning their plates, and giving treat food as rewards for eating healthy food. But even if you don't put pressure on your kids in this way, they may be getting it when they're away from home, such as in daycare or at school.
According to research published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there's evidence that child-care workers frequently use CFP during mealtime—even though national policies for childhood obesity prevention recommend that they avoid it. Older kids may hear pressure to eat from teachers in the school cafeteria.
But trying to control food intake in this way actually backfires, and it's associated with kids taking in more sugar-sweetened beverages and snack food as well as an increased risk for obesity. "If children are encouraged to eat when they're not hungry often enough, they can lose touch with the signals of hunger and fullness and are more prone to overeat," says Katja Rowell, M.D., a childhood feeding specialist. "I think many adults have lost touch with their own hunger and fullness cues and don't trust that children can manage their own eating. It helps to remember that only the child knows how much he is hungry for. Some days he may eat a lot, other days less."
According to the new research, children get as much as three-quarters of their daily intake in full-time child-care programs. So the types of feeding practices used there can have a big impact on kids.
So why do child-care providers use CFP? Because it can work in the short-term. Many also use it for tasks outside of mealtime, such as food rewards for potty-training. Some providers also told researchers they did it because parents complain that their kids aren't eating enough while they're at daycare or are hungry when they get home. "When my daughter was little, I had to have 'the talk' with her teachers about not interfering with her eating," Dr. Rowell says. "All of them told me that most parents ask them to make children eat, [and] even get in on the bribing and rewarding." Dr. Rowell says that schools and daycares should have a clear policy that school personnel aren't permitted to force or encourage kids to eat—both to protect teachers and kids and help educate parents that pressuring kids at mealtime isn't good for children.
Feeding experts say that "healthful feeding practices" (HFP) should be used in the child-care setting instead. This means letting kids decide what and how much to eat, modeling healthy eating, and giving kids lots of exposure to new foods without pressure. The researchers say it's the difference between a child-care provider saying, "Be brave and try some pineapple!" or "This pineapple tastes so sweet and juicy! Would you like to try it?" Doesn't seem like a big shift—but it is. "Teachers I have worked with who have been allowed to support children with eating and not expected to pressure or intervene report that it feels better, it improves the relationship with the students, and that children eat and behave better," says Dr. Rowell. "It's no fun being a food cop, and it doesn't help the kids."
If your child is getting pressure at mealtime at daycare or school, Dr. Rowell recommends having a conversation with the child-care provider or teacher. She also created this Lunchbox Card that you can can print, laminate, and put in your child's lunch box that asks teachers not to interfere at mealtime.
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 Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. 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.