3 in 5 parents are customising meals for children
The Sector > Research > 3 in 5 parents are customising meals for children: how might this impact fussy eating?

3 in 5 parents are customising meals for children: how might this impact fussy eating?

by Freya Lucas

April 24, 2024

It’s a familiar issue for early childhood education and care (ECEC) professionals – the one child, or the many children, who will refuse to try new foods, and will instead wait to be offered an alternative such as a sandwich. 


While there are some neurodiversities and disorders such as Avoidant/restrictive food intake disorder (AFRID) which contribute to this food aversion behaviour, there are also some elements of behavioural conditioning which is happening in the home which might be contributing to children’s behaviours in ECEC. 


Some strategies that parents use in a bid to encourage their children to eat a balanced, and nutritional diet may actually be contributing to ‘fussy eating,’ new research from the University of Michigan has found. 


Key findings


One of the key findings from the report was that three in every five families are customising meals to cater to their children’s likes and dislikes, not requiring them to eat what everyone else is eating.


One in eight parents require children to eat everything on their plate, and only one in three have tried alternative, potentially more nutritional options for their children’s favourite options such as pizza or nuggets.


“Feeding young children can be difficult due to general pickiness, hesitancy to try unfamiliar foods and constantly evolving food preferences,” Dr  Susan Woolford explained.


“The preschool and elementary age is an important time to establish healthy eating patterns. Yet parents’ concern about whether their child is eating enough or if they’re getting the nutrients they need may lead them to adopt practices that actually sabotage their efforts to get kids to have healthy eating habits in the short and long term.”


Adequate nutrition, unhelpful rules


Another issue is the adoption by parents of alternative diets such as vegetarian, vegan or keto, which may not give children adequate nutrition, particularly if entire groups of foods, such as carbohydrates, are eliminated. 


Fifteen percent of the parents involved in the research say their family rule is that children must finish what’s on their plate, while more than half of those surveyed say children must try some of everything. A little less than a third of the parents involved say a family rule is that there will be no dessert if meals are not finished. 


Although these rules may seem helpful on the surface, they can backfire, and leave children eating portions which leave them overly full and uncomfortable. 


“Requiring children to eat everything on their plate, or withholding dessert unless all other foods are eaten, can lead to overconsumption, especially if portion sizes are too large for the child’s age,” Dr Woolford said.


She agrees with the recommendation that “parents provide, and the child decides.” This makes parents responsible for providing healthy options while allowing children to select which foods they will eat and the amount they want to consume.


Personal chef approach may be harmful


Sixty percent of parents involved in the research said they will make something separate if their child doesn’t like the food that’s on the dinner table – and this often leads to a less healthy alternative, Dr Woolford said.


“Rather than allowing the child to choose an alternate menu, parents should provide a balanced meal with at least one option that their child is typically willing to eat,” she explained.


“Then if their child chooses not to eat, parents should not worry as this will not cause healthy children any harm and they will be more likely to eat the options presented at the next meal.”


She points out that children learn through watching and imitating, so it’s beneficial for parents to model healthy eating through a well-balanced diet while their child’s eating habits and taste preferences mature.


Avoiding snacks between meals may also help children have a better appetite and increase willingness to eat offered foods.


Picky eating and protesting veggies among the biggest battles


When parents were asked to describe the biggest challenges they have with ensuring their children have a healthy diet, they identified children being picky eaters, the high cost of healthy food, and eliminating food waste, as well as not having time to prepare healthy food. 


Nearly all parents polled report trying at least one strategy to get their child to eat vegetables as part of a healthy diet, such as serving vegetables every day, fixing vegetables in a way their child prefers, trying vegetables their child hasn’t had before and letting children pick out vegetables at the grocery store.


Others involve children with preparing the vegetables, hiding vegetables in other foods or offering a reward for finishing vegetables.


“Unsurprisingly, parents said pickiness and getting kids to eat veggies were among major challenges during mealtimes,” Dr Woolford said.


“Parents should try to include children in meal decisions, avoid pressuring food consumption and provide a variety of healthy options at each meal so kids feel more control.”


Right sizing food may be difficult


Portion size is key to mitigating the risk of childhood obesity, but it can be hard for parents to “right-size” a child portion, she continued.


In determining the right portion size for their child, nearly 70 per cent of parents polled give their child slightly less than adults in the family while fewer let their child choose how much to take, use predetermined portions from the package or give their child the same portions as adults.


Dr Woolford recommends parents seek sources to help, such as a visual called “MyPlate” that can help parents estimate the recommended balance of the major food groups and offers guidance on estimating portion size.


Healthy eating starts at the grocery store


When grocery shopping or planning meals, parents involved in the research say they try to limit the amount of certain foods to help their child to maintain a healthy diet, with more than half limiting foods with added sugars and processed foods.


There may be challenges for parents to identify unhealthy food, with added sugars or processing which may be present in foods marketed or packaged as healthy, Dr Woolford says.


She recommends that parents should read labels, avoiding the marketing on the front of packages and focusing instead on the details on the back. They should pay particular attention to nutrition information and ingredient lists – especially if they’re long with unrecognizable items – as well as sodium, added sugars, and fat.


She also encourages involving children in grocery trips, spending time in the produce section and asking them what they may like to try.


“Have them help in the process of choosing the healthiest options, not ones that necessarily directly advertise to children, but foods that they are willing to try that are lower in sugar, fat and salt,” she said.


“Spend most of the time in the produce section and try to make it fun by maybe selecting new options from different parts of the world that they haven’t tried before.”

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