Many of us have memories of being told we couldn't leave the dinner table until we cleared our plates, or being encouraged to eat past our comfort level because "there are starving kids in Africa." Or perhaps we were promised ice cream only if we finished our homework.
Parents often use food as a way to elicit a certain behavior in their children, but what they sometimes don't realize is that they're contributing to their child's future relationship with food — and not always in a good way.
Using food to control a child — by using it to show love, or as a reward or punishment — could give them an unhealthy relationship with nutrition. Saying things like, “Mommy made this special for you, so eat more,” or rewarding and punishing children with food for their behavior could make them alter their behavior not because it’s right, but because of the food involved.
Also, like any other learned behavior, children form relationships with food, and positive ones at that, by observing their parents. A study at Oxford University concluded that children adopt better nutritional habits by example, rather than parental restrictions.
So what’s a parent to do? Children have to eat, and our time (and patience) can be limited. Give them the freedom to eat or not eat. A child will not suffer from malnutrition if they decide that they don’t like the food given to them or they’re not hungry for one meal.
Your job is to provide them with nutritious meals — and research shows those healthy meals could, in fact, directly improve behavior. Allowing them to eat as much or as little as they’d like (without letting them overeat to a point that affects their weight and overall health) gives them a healthy relationship with food — one free of associating food with love, reward or punishment.