To Raise Healthy Eaters, Go Beyond Breaking the Rules

Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy researchers discuss the current science behind raising healthy eaters, the new advice about breaking old rules, and how that advice might miss the point

Eating isn’t what it used to be. These days, advice for parents looking for the best ways to feed their children might seem antithetical to approaches that their own generation considered just plain healthy. For example, in 2020, the Boston Globe ran an article advising parents to let kids eat as many sweets as they want, play with their food, have dessert alongside dinner, and leave food they don’t want on their plates. 

According to nutrition experts Dan Hatfield and Erin Hennessy, both from the Friedman School’s Division of Nutrition Communications and Behavior Change, some of the new suggested practices are well-supported by decades of research. “We now know more about which food parenting practices promote self-regulation and healthy eating and which practices interfere,” said Hennessy. “The ultimate goal is to help children develop in a way that allows them to listen to their bodies' cues about when, what, and how much to eat, and to build their confidence to make good choices for themselves in the long term.”

Both researchers explained that it’s not enough to simply break long-established rules. While parents would do well to incorporate many of the food parenting practices that mass media outlets currently tout, Hatfield and Hennessy pointed out that it’s crucial for parents to consider the full context in which those practices are enacted. 

“Parents are very important,” explained Hatfield, research assistant professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy, “but they exist within a much larger ecology of influences on children’s dietary behavior.” 

“What I often see in the mass media is a cherry-pick approach to talking about food parenting—that’s the term we use in the field to refer to parenting in the context of feeding children,” added Hennessy, a Friedman School assistant professor and director ad interim of ChildObesity180. “I wish articles for a general audience went further to offer more of the evidence about what we know will promote healthy eating rather than focus on just a few specific strategies.”

Tufts Now caught up with Hatfield and Hennessy to find out more about the nuances of raising healthy eaters in an era when the Clean-Plate Club is no longer relevant.

Tufts Now: Is it true that the rules many of today’s parents today grew up with—clean your plate, dessert if you eat all your vegetables—no longer hold? 

Erin Hennessy: What we really need is a fuller depiction of the wide swath of food parenting practices available to help parents raise healthy eaters, and a more accurate description of how different practices are related to one another. For instance, the concept of “clean your plate” is a food parenting practice we call “pressure to eat,” while using dessert as a reward for eating dinner is a feeding practice known as "threats/bribes.” The two are both a form of coercive control, meaning that a parent uses pressure, intrusion, and dominance to control their child’s feelings and thoughts, as well as their behaviors. 

Food parenting practices like these are now known to be detrimental to the development of a child's ability to self-regulate their intake. But we want parents to also know they still have many options that are positive and that work.

What is the current science around what parents should feed their kids?

Dan Hatfield: The messages around things like eating fruits and vegetables, eating whole grains instead of refined grains, limiting the amount of sugar you take in—those are dietary recommendations that have all been in place for a while. 

Dan Hatfield

Dan Hatfield

But in the mainstream media, the messages people hear can be confusing and inconsistent. I wish we could more consistently communicate the fundamentals in terms of what defines a healthy diet.

Hennessy: It’s important to keep in mind that there are two different things here: what to eat and how to feed others (in this case, your children). As Dan mentioned, we have really good, clear, consistent guidance on what to eat. But how you get someone to eat the foods that the dietary guidelines for Americans suggest are part of a healthy dietary pattern—that’s where the mainstream media merely scratches the surface. 

Hatfield: In terms of individual food parenting tactics, yes, there are some old rules to break. But you have to set food parenting in a larger context. So often when we think about dietary behavior or health behavior, our inclination is to wag our finger and tell people to change what they’re doing. And when it comes to kids, we lay a lot at the feet of parents. Parents are very important, but there’s also the school food environment, the local food retail environment, and the restaurant environment. And there’s the messaging and marketing to which kids are exposed. All of those things, and innumerable other influences, also are really important. 

Parenting practices are one piece of the puzzle, but we also want to be intervening at other levels to promote healthier behaviors for kids. 

Hennessy: Feeding practices are the specific strategies parents use to feed their children. But it’s also equally important to understand parenting style, as in, how these practices are communicated from parent to child. Generally speaking, a style known as authoritative parenting, meaning you're both nurturing and demanding, generates the most positive child outcomes. You're a parent who listens and responds to your child's wants and needs but who also sets clear, consistent expectations and boundaries.

“Kids, especially younger kids, are always learning to self-regulate. When parents dictate what kids can and can’t have, they’re taking away a learning opportunity for the child.”

Research Assistant Professor Dan Hatfield

What are some strategies you recommend for raising healthy eaters?

Hennessy: The two areas we want to emphasize with parents are structure and autonomy support. These approaches help children learn how to develop their own abilities to make good food choices. Structure refers to the ways in which a parent organizes the child’s environment to facilitate their competence. Autonomy support refers to the way a parent helps build their child’s sense of self and encourages independence. 

Erin Hennessy

Erin Hennessy

In practice, it’s about providing clear, consistent—that’s key—rules and limits, meal and snack routines, and access to healthy options, and also about role-modeling the healthy-eating behavior you seek in your child. Nutrition education, praise and encouragement, reasoning, negotiation, and involving your child in food selection or preparation all help to build a child’s autonomy. Parents use some or most of these practices on any given day and select or modify them based on their child’s age and other factors. For instance, negotiating may work better with a 12-year old than with a 2-year old!

Can the practices you recommend be put to use in environments where there aren’t a lot of choices?

Hatfield: First and foremost, as a society, we have to do a better job of making healthy choices more accessible to more families and making access more equitable. I do think parents can try to  do the best they can with what they have available to them. For example, keep in mind that it’s not just fresh produce that’s healthful but also frozen or canned produce. To the extent that families have access to those kinds of things, that can be a great way of exposing kids to a variety of healthy foods. But I think the bigger-picture issue is that we need to do better when it comes to improving access. 

If a lot of mainstream media advises parents to employ restriction or coercive control, what can parents do to be less so?

Hennessy: We’ve learned a lot about the relationship between restriction and eating disorders and the development of feelings of guilt. Those things can create long-term negative relationships with food. Attribution theory says that if you’re restricting food and restricting access to highly palatable foods, perhaps less healthy foods, then those are the foods that children will want. 

So you create a context of you can’t have it, you can’t have it—then the child will never learn how to control themselves around foods they were never allowed to have. 

One of the best ways to begin to create change is by asking parents to step back and think about themselves. Their tendency to restrict access to foods is not necessarily about their child but about the parent’s own belief system or relationship to food. Much of the research says that in creating a healthy family dynamic, let’s intervene with the parent first: How do you, the parent, feel about these foods? Why are they taboo to you? Then let’s work to unpack that and develop the parent’s ability to utilize food parenting practices that provide structure and autonomy support for the child.

Hatfield: These parenting behaviors generally come from a good place; parents are trying to do what they can to support their kids. Parents telling their kids “Don’t go to [insert any fast food chain]” are trying to do what they think is best for their child. But kids, especially younger kids, are always learning to self-regulate. When parents dictate what kids can and can’t have, they’re taking away a learning opportunity for the child. 

When it comes down to it, we really need empathy in our approach to conversations with parents. So often, people in the nutrition field come off as antagonistic or as telling parents, “You’re doing it wrong.” It feels accusatory, and that’s not productive for anyone. 

Most of the time, parents are doing the best they can with the resources and information and tools that they have. Part of our job as nutrition scientists is to listen to parents’ needs and to share guidance that’s evidence-based but which also reflects an empathetic understanding of where people are at.

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