Give your children choices — it’s standard parenting advice.  But what about when the choices are counterproductive?  That’s one of the messages in a recent article by researchers at Penn State University who were trying to identify what things parents can do during mealtimes to produce kids who are healthy eaters.

What they found is that children whose parents make special meals for them eat fewer fruits and vegetables than kids who eat what the family eats.

They also found that when parents offer their children too many choices — by letting them eat whenever they want, substitute disliked foods with liked ones, flavor foods however they wish (with ketchup for example) — they end up eating more snack foods than kids who are presented with fewer options.

I guess the point is that given the choice, most kids don’t choose to eat healthy foods.

My interviews with parents make it clear that one reason they give their children lots of choices is because it feels like a respectful thing to do.  Who among us doesn’t want some say in what we eat?  Parents also want to maximize the chances that their kids will eat… and eat without a struggle.

But too many choices means kids are not getting the guidance they need to expand their palates. Too many choices, or catering on demand also can exacerbate your child’s desire for control.  After all, if your kid’s demands for certain foods are always being met, the only thing he can do if he still wants control is make more demands.  That’s how the number of foods a controlling child accepts always seems to shrink.

So what should you do?

Well, one thing is for sure: don’t flip the other way and start forcing your kids to eat, for instance, by threatening them with punishment.  That’s been shown to reduce food acceptance.  And don’t try to restrict consumption of favorite foods completely because that’s related to over-consumption when these foods are available.

Instead, find a more moderate approach.  Offer your children limited, not open-ended choices:  Don’t ask “what do you want to eat,” instead ask, “would you like X or Y?”

Of course, a lot of other things influence how well children eat.  According to this study, what other strategies work?

  • Making fruits and vegetables widely available.
  • Gentle positive persuasion –  i.e. telling kids how good the food is or by telling them that they (the parents), siblings and friends like the food
  • Insistence on eating

Source: Hendy, H. M., Williams, K. E., Camise, T. S., Eckman, N., Hedemann, A. 2009. The Parent Mealtime Action Scale (PMAS).  Development and association with children’s diet and weight. Appetite 52:328-339.