Factors Affecting Children's Food Choices

As enforcers of food rules, parents seek the delicate balance between setting rules about food choices and ensuring that they are followed.
Dandelion
Parents are a major influence on the food choices of their children. They make decisions about which foods are available at home, and where and when foods can be eaten in the house.1

As enforcers of food rules, parents seek the delicate balance between setting rules about food choices and ensuring that they are followed. For example, a parent may decide to limit the supply of treats like chips and cookies that are stocked in the kitchen.

Rigid Food Restrictions May Backfire
Guiding food choices helps children learn to make smart decisions rather than simply learning that foods are either OK to eat or forbidden.2 Banning particular foods can make them even more appealing to children. The best strategy is to include some of these foods in the child's choice of treats.

Striking a balance is particularly crucial when parenting a child who is trying to reach a healthy weight. Rigid food restrictions may teach the child that healthy weight is about following a highly structured regimen. The negative effects may be compounded if the same rules are not enforced in thin or healthy-weight siblings. To avoid this, it is vital that parents provide the same food guidelines to everyone in the household.3

Healthy Foods Served Without Fanfare
Parents who are overly enthusiastic about healthy foods as a way to encourage children to eat them may find that the strategy backfires. Extreme verbal responses and obvious body language affect the child's beliefs and preferences for foods, so the best approach is neutral and equal reactions to all foods.

When the Child Is a Picky Eater
Virtually all young children have the potential to become "picky eaters." This is because they are naturally neophobic, that is, they are afraid of new things, including foods. The way that parents introduce new foods can help lessen food neophobia. For example, research has found that it may take up to 10 "exposures" to a new food for a child to feel brave enough to try it.4 A useful strategy for parents is to keep serving the same food day after day, but without calling undue attention to it. In time, and without prodding, many children will try the new food. Seeing parents eating a new food also takes away some of the fear factor for the young child.

This content is reviewed regularly. Last updated November 13, 2012.

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FOOTNOTES

1 Institute of Medicine of the National Academies. Preventing Childhood Obesity: Health in the Balance. Washington, D.C.: The National Academies Press, 2005.

2 Birch LL, Davison KK Family environmental factors influencing the developing behavioral controls of food intake and childhood overweight. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2001;48:893-907.

3 Kleinman RE, ed. Pediatric Nutrition Handbook, Fifth Edition. Chicago, IL:American Academy of Pediatrics, 2004.

4 Sullivan SA, Birch LL. Infant dietary experience and acceptance of solid foods. Pediatrics. 1994;93:271-7.

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