Food rules or free-for-all: helping children develop a healthy relationship with food

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Obesity Initiative at UGA

Image courtesy of Iamnee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Iamnee / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Tight control over snacks can make kids want them more, according to a study by UGA foods and nutrition professor Leann Birch, which was featured last month in The New York Times. For parents, finding the right balance between structure and choice could be important to ensuring their children have a healthy relationship with food.

All children in the study were more attracted to snacks that were typically prohibited than snacks that were made easily accessible. But the forbidden snacks were even more enticing for some of the kids, specifically those that were found to be “reactive eaters,” or highly motivated by food, in another task. These children ate more of the prohibited snacks when they were made available, according to the Times article.

The next step in this research is to determine how much freedom parents should give their kids when it comes to eating, Birch explained in a follow-up interview. The answer may depend on how naturally reactive to food the child is.

Birch, who conducted the research while on faculty at Penn State, said her colleagues are currently testing how different parenting approaches affect kids’ attraction to food. She thinks parenting principles from other areas of psychology, which suggest balancing structure and freedom, may apply.

“Parents can provide structure for children by choosing the foods available to them and providing routines related to the timing of meals and snacks,” said Birch, who is a member of UGA’s Obesity Initiative. “Within that structure, parents can allow children to make all the choices about whether and how much to eat.”

Check out the Times article for more tips from the expert.