Parenting Feeding Styles

Do you know what your food parenting style is? Wait. Strike that.

Do you know that you even HAVE a food parenting (or feeding) style?

If you’re at all in tune with modern day TV programming, you’ve likely come across a home renovation show or two that talks about a home owner’s decorating style. There’s industrial, nautical, Scandinavian, bohemian, farmhouse, urban modern etc. Just like there is a “style” that you carry through your home (or lack thereof perhaps in my case!), you also have a “style” that you bring to feeding your child.

What is a parenting style?

Let’s start by defining parenting style. A parenting style is an overall system of values, beliefs, and parenting practices. It is usually explained based on the amount of responsiveness (i.e. warmth/acceptance/involvement) and demandingness (i.e. control/supervision) that a parent exerts in a child’s life. 

The relationship between your parenting style around food and your child’s eating is likely bi-directional, meaning your parenting both influences and is a result of your child’s behaviour.

Despite this bi-directional relationship, the vast majority of nutrition research has only looked at the effect a parent’s feeding style has on his/her child. What they have found is that there is a significant relationship between feeding practices and child eating behaviours.

What you might see is that some feeding styles are more effective than others.

The 4 main parenting styles in feeding

1. Uninvolved – low responsiveness; low demandingness

“I have no idea what’s here to eat. Find your own food.”

This is essentially an “I don’t care” style of parenting. Parents may be remote and are indifferent and uninvolved. There are no rules in the home and no support. Cases of child neglect often fall under this umbrella.

With respect to feeding, parents show no responsibility for feeding. Meals are often forgotten.

2. Permissive – high responsiveness; low demandingness

“You don’t want my supper? What do you want instead? I’ll cook it for you right away.”

Dubbed the “whatever you want” method of parenting, this parenting style is explained as avoiding leadership and setting minimal boundaries. There are few rules and expectations. Parents don’t guide behaviours and avoid exerting authority, while typically overlooking negative behaviours.

In terms of feeding, parents often show lower responsibility for feeding and don’t monitor intake; they don’t pressure kids to eat, nor do they restrict or control foods being eaten.

3. Authoritative – high responsiveness and high demandingness

“It’s time for lunch. You can choose what you want (and how much) from what’s on the table.”

The authoritative approach to parenting is all about love, compassion and empathy within a shell of clear parental leadership and structure, with consistent standards, often called “love with limits”. These parents encourage independence and listen intently to their child.

In the kitchen, these parents show a high degree of responsibility for feeding and monitoring food intake but do not pressure to eat or restrict food intake.

4. Authoritarian – low responsiveness and high demandingness

“Dinner is on the table. You WILL eat all of it before you can leave.”

Think Captain Von Trapp in the Sound of Music before he fell in love with Maria! This approach is summed up in 4 words “Because I said so!” This parenting style occurs when a parent lays down the law and expects 100% compliance. Independence is not encouraged, nor is letting children make their own decisions.

Around food, parents with this style will show a high responsibility for monitoring food intake and feeding their child combined with excessive pressure to eat and may highly restrict foods that they believe are less healthy. Other common phrases used by this parenting style may include: “no dessert unless you eat your peas” and “we don’t eat sugar in our house”.

Father and daughter in the kitchen.

How does my food parenting style affect my child?

Here’s what the research shows with respect to how these parenting styles play out from a child development perspective around food.

Children whose parents are uninvolved show:

  • Insecurity, anxiety &/or fixation around food – will there be food? Will there be enough?

Children whose parents predominately used a permissive approach show:

  • Higher intake of less healthy foods
  • Lower intake of fruits and veggies
  • Greater likelihood of childhood overweight due to fewer food boundaries
  • Some struggles around self-regulating

Children whose parents use an authoritarian approach show:

  • Reduced awareness of internal hunger and fullness cues – they might overeat when forced to clean their plate or eat less due to being pressured or pushed too much
  • Low intake of fruits and veggies
  • High intake of restricted foods when they have access to them (i.e. sweets)  
  • Weight concerns – both underweight or overweight are linked to this feeding style

Children whose parents use an authoritative approach in feeding demonstrate:

  • Healthy internal cues around eating – these children can identify hunger and fullness signals in their bodies and act in accordance to those signals
  • High intake of fruits and vegetables
  • Improved nutritional outcomes
  • Healthy weights

Taken together, an authoritative parenting style is considered the “sweet spot” for providing an environment that is conducive to growing healthy intuitive eaters. Parents feed authoritatively when they observe and understand their child and follow Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding → doing their jobs as parents and allowing their child to do his or her job. 

 Help! My spouse and I have very different styles!

This is normal and quite common. In my experience the best place to start is to have an open conversation on this topic, to gain understanding about each other’s style, where that style comes from (hint – there were likely seeds planted from childhood) and what your desired style is moving forward.

In our practice, we guide parents through some reflective questions that are helpful as you navigate this and other elements that you bring into feeding your children. The ultimate goal is to come to an agreement on your approach moving forward so that you can provide consistent guidance to your child.

The Bottom Line

  • HOW you feed your child matters as much as WHAT you feed your child
  • An authoritative approach to feeding your child, which employs the Division of Responsibility, can be helpful for many children to grow well and develop a healthy relationship with food
  • Food parenting styles can vary within parenting teams. Be sure to talk to your spouse or partner about deciding on a consistent path moving forward. 

Take it one bite at a time,

Rosanne

References:

Satter, EM. Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. Palo Alto: Bull Publishing; 2000. 

Collins C, Duncanson K, Burrows T. A systematic review investigating associations between parenting style and child feeding behaviours. J Hum Nutr Diet. 2014 27:557-568.

Podlesak A, Mozer M, Smith-Simpson S, Lee SY, Donovan S. Associations between parenting style and parent and toddler mealtime behaviours. Curr Dev Nutr. 2017 1:e000570.

Van der Horst K, Sleddens E. Parenting styles, feeding styles and food-related parenting practices in relation to toddlers’ eating styles: A cluster-analytic approach. PLoS ONE. 2017 12(5): e0178149.

Goodman L, Roberts L, Musher-Eizenman D. Mindful feeding: A pathway between parenting style and child eating behaviours. Eating behaviours. 2020 36: 101335.

Kiefner-Burmeister A, Hinman N. The role of general parenting style in child diet and obesity risk. Curr Nutr Rep. 2020. 

Langer SL, Seburg E, JaKa M, Sherwood N, Levy R. Predicting dietary intake among children classified as overweight or at risk of overweight: independent and interactive effects of parenting practices and styles. Appetite. 2017;110:72-79.