Family Matters

If Your Kids Don’t Want to Eat, Don’t Sweat It

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Kiss the clean-plate club goodbye. Not only is it bad form, in light of rising childhood obesity rates, to nag your kids to finish their food, but new research shows it’s also bound to backfire and create the dreaded Picky Eater.

Researchers in the United Kingdom asked 104 British mothers of children ages 3 to 6 about how they interacted with their kids about food. They found that moms with fussy, slow or problem eaters tended to be those who hounded their kids more to eat — hardly a prudent move.

Mothers who pressured their children about food were likely to end up with kids who avoided eating even more fiercely. Same goes for those who used food to try to shape their kids’ behavior.

Further, urging kids to eat when they’re not hungry tends to override a child’s innate sense of satiety, which can create kids who have a hard time regulating their appetite, the author said. “Healthy children are born able to regulate their hunger and fullness,” study author Claire Farrow, a senior psychology lecturer at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, told MyHealthNewsDaily.

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Although mothers who nagged tended to made things worse, the study found that in some cases encouragement was helpful. Farrow told MyHealthNewsDaily:

“If the aim is to get the child to eat more food because the parent wants the child to, then this has shown to be counterproductive. Children should be allowed to stop eating when they are full if they are to be able to regulate their appetites appropriately,” she said.

“However, if the aim is to get the child to try a new food that they do not want to, then some recent research has shown that gentle encouragement and positive reward for trying new foods can be a successful strategy,” Farrow said.

The conclusions, to be published in the December issue of the journal Appetite, will make a lot of sense to anyone who knows even a little bit about child development. Tell a child what to do, and he’ll rebel. But gently guide, and you may have more success.

So if you want your children to eat a more balanced diet, try serving a wider variety of nutritious foods. If they opt not to eat the healthy choices and request only junk (which my 4-year-old has proclaimed as her favorite food group), be consistent about not giving in. Let them choose from what’s on the table — they’ll eat if they’re hungry.

And, please, don’t use the “children-are-starving-in-Africa” chestnut; while that’s inevitably true, the new research shows that allowing kids to eat only when they’re hungry is the way to go.

Bonnie Rochman is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at@brochman. You can also continue the discussion on TIME‘s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.