How to Build Your Child’s Self-Regulation at The Dining Room Table

“You have to finish what’s on your plate before you can have dessert.”

It’s something that many of us likely heard as children, and have possibly even used with our own kids. Wanting our children to learn not to be wasteful (or ungrateful) with their food is understandable, but it turns out that ultimatums like this may have some unintended, and possibly lasting negative consequences.

Three kids eating cake at the dining room table with crumbs all over their faces

Parenting Style & Self-Regulation

The ways in which we interact with our children, our parenting style, has the broadest influence on a child’s behavior because it creates the emotional climate within which a child makes decisions about his or her actions.

Our parenting style influences the development of self-regulation, the ability of a child to govern him/herself, in very specific ways. Studies have shown that self-regulated children have parents who:

Providing consistent messaging and following through with promises also helps children establish self-discipline and a willingness to delay gratification. These executive function skills set our kids up for success in school and life AND are important for establishing healthy eating behaviors.

The Link to Health Eating Habits

How we approach feeding our kids, which is closely related to our overall parenting style, has a huge influence on our children’s ability to self-regulate food intake. This is something we should pay attention to. The inability to listen to internal cues of hunger and satiety can lead to overeating, eating in the absence of hunger, and ultimately to health consequences like overweight and obesity. In contrast, strong self-regulation usually leads to healthier eating.

Though it is tempting to micromanage our kids’ eating, numerous studies have shown that highly directive and/or controlling feeding practices are linked to lower self-regulation and higher weight status among children.

Children who are instructed to “clean their plates” tend to be less responsive than children who were taught to focus on internal cues of hunger and fullness. Children whose parents were more focused on external cues of consumption, rather than trusting their children’s ability to accurately identify feelings of fullness, had lower self-regulation and greater eating in the absence of hunger. Low maternal support paired with high levels of control was associated with emotional eating which extended all the way into young adolescents.

Parent’s short term food goals may end up having long-lasting, and potentially negative, consequences down the road.

Take, for example, my 21 month old. Since birth he has been in the 25th percentile for weight and, what I consider, a small (not picky) eater: he took to solid foods slowly – trying nothing more than little tastes for weeks and refusing anything that was pureed. But he eventually started consuming larger amounts, and a greater diversity of foods, with more regularity. I could have easily worried about his intake and forced him to consume more calories, but this could have set him up for a lifetime of overeating. Now, I trust him to tell me when he’s hungry (sometimes I make sure to ask, several times, if he his) and I make sure to provide the best quality foods I can when he does eat.

What You Can Do

The most important thing you can do is remember that this is an iterative process, and that it’s never too late to establish healthy (or healthier) behaviors. If you’re already doing these things, congratulations! Continue to evaluate what is working and what isn’t for your family. If you want to make some changes, I suggest starting small and making them one at a time. That way, they are more likely to stick around for the long-haul. Here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Serve small portions. It is important for parents to have informed and realistic expectations about their children’s food intake. Remember that kids have small stomachs. Serving the same portion size to your toddler as you do to yourself sets everyone up to experience failure at the dinner table; your child may fight eating more and you’ll feel like they have hardly touched their food. So start small with portions. Allow your child to finish what’s on her plate and learn to ask for more food, or better yet let her serve herself (at least one study has shown that children consume 25% more energy when given age-inappropriate portion sizes compared to self-served portions). This gives her a sense of independence and control and provides another opportunity for her to listen to her internal cues. Plus, it allows you to discuss all of these topics with her.
  2. Remove distractions, focus on eating. Studies have shown that eating while distracted leads to over consumption and reduced feelings of fullness (even when more calories are consumed). So when it’s time to eat, whether it’s a meal or a snack, take time to sit down and really enjoy your food. Stay present and attuned to the task at hand and use meal/snack time as another opportunity to connect with your child. All of these behaviors will help your child (and you!) develop a healthy respect for and relationship with food.
  3. Take your time. Parents of young children have probably observed that kids tend to take longer to eat than adults (at least at younger ages), and this might actually be a good thing as it takes our body time to register those satiety signals telling us that we’re full. In children, shorter attention spans (at 1 year old) have been associated with a greater chance of being overweight at age 6; slow down and take time when eating to focus on the flavors and textures …and on enjoying the company.
  4. Trust your children. It’s important to remember that caloric needs are met over the course of a day, not at any given meal and that children’s appetites will vary depending on what else they’ve eaten that day, how active they have been, and whether or not they are going through a period of rapid development or growth. It’s difficult to keep tabs on everything your child has consumed, especially if you’re not with him all day, so trust that he knows when he’s through eating. Teach him the words he needs to identify and express that feeling and to tell you that he’s full.
  5. Let her choose. Set boundaries that you are comfortable with, and within those let your children make some choices for themselves about what they will eat. This doesn’t mean, of course, unlimited access to cookies – or even fruit – but giving your kids the opportunity to make small decisions lets them practice this important skill.
  6. Model the behavior you want to see. Children often need repeated exposure to foods before they are willing to even taste them, let alone willing to eat them. Be patient. Continue to present the food at the dinner table, each time offering it without forcing him to consume it. Then take some yourself and let your child see you enjoying it. And don’t feel the need to trick your child into eating his vegetables, for example smothering the broccoli in cheese in the hopes that he forgets the green stuff is there. These efforts will only back-fire in the long run. Parental modeling and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at home have been positively associated with fruit and vegetable consumption in children, even years later!

As always, let me know your questions, thoughts, and stories!

Kiyah Duffey, Ph.D.

Kiyah Duffey received her degree in Nutritional Epidemiology from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and is now an assistant professor in the department of Human Nutrition, Foods & Exercise at Virginia Tech. She is also a freelance nutrition consultant, blogger, and mother to three children (ages 4 and under). In her day job, Kiyah’s research aims to understand the association between diet, obesity and heart disease. She is the author of almost two dozen scientific articles on these topics, and her work has been featured in Men’s Health Magazine, USA Today, and the BBC News and on NPR’s Morning Edition, Good Morning America, and the NBC Nightly News. But her true passion is food: reading and writing about it, shopping for it, talking about it, cooking it and sharing it with others. Someday she’ll figure out how to marry her passion and expertise more fully; in the meantime you can follow her efforts to do so at www.ourregularlyscheduledprogram.com where she blogs about family, parenting, career, and the search for a healthy, balanced life. Or connect with her via facebook or Twitter.