Do you have a child who is a picky eater or were you once a picky eater as a child? Have you ever forced children to eat food or experienced being forced to eat food? If yes, how do you feel about that certain food item now as an adult? Forced feeding or forced consumption is defined as: “a situation where an individual (parent, caregiver, relative, friend or acquaintance) forced/demanded that you consume a specific substance such as food or beverage against your will”.
In a 2002 study by Batsell et al., the most common “forced” substances are vegetables (49.5 %), red meat (15.9 %) and seafood (7.5 %), fruits (6.5 %), milk, dairy and pasta. One factor that would influence a child to eat is neophobia or the unwillingness to consume a new food item and it would take 10 exposure trials before the child begins to accept the novel food. This could be aggravated by taste dislike and negative social situations such as punishing children if they do not eat the food. On the other hand, parents or caregivers justify their actions by saying “it's good for you”, “try something new”, “avoid wastefulness”, “child was too skinny” which aims to just increase the child’s size instead of improving their overall health. Even though the objective is to teach children to eat new food or vegetables - force feeding with punishment, humiliation or using another food as a reward is an ineffective way of teaching healthy food practices in children because it will cause a negative association with food which can be carried on up to adult life. In the same study, 72% of the respondents reported that they would not willingly eat the target food today as an adult. This could be detrimental if that individual develops rejection of a whole food group such as fruits and vegetables due to negative childhood experiences.
In extreme cases, force feeding may negatively affect a child’s nutrition when a caregiver or parent injures the child’s mouth or teeth by forcing a spoon or utensil inside the mouth of a resisting child. Mouth injuries related to forced feeding is considered child abuse - a violation of children’s rights. Since we are celebrating the National Children’s Month, we should be aware of these signs and take action to “protect all children from forms of physical or mental violence, injury or abuse, neglect or negligent treatment, maltreatment or exploitation, including sexual abuse, while in the care of parent(s), legal guardian(s) or any other person who has the care of the child” as stated in Article 19 of the Convention on the Rights of Children.
There are ways to encourage children to eat healthy food through effective and positive methods such as:
● Eating a variety of fruits and vegetables during pregnancy because studies have shown that a baby’s taste preference is influenced by the mother’s diet during pregnancy.
● Set an example and eat fruits, vegetables and other healthy dishes as a family since children tend to mimic adults in social situations such as eating.
● Assist children to eat, being sensitive to their cues or signals.
● Talk to children during feeding with eye-to-eye contact.
● Feed slowly and patiently, encourage but do not force. Do not force feed, punish or humiliate a child if they do not want to eat a certain food because this will cause greater negative association with the target food.
● Do not deceive the child that a certain food tastes good when it’s not because it will cause distrust and will make future food introductions harder.
● Include small pieces of the new food item with the familiar foods to gradually introduce it into your child’s diet.
● Respond positively to the child with smiles, eye contact and encouraging words.
● Feed the child slowly and patiently with good humor.
● Try different food combinations, tastes and textures to encourage eating.
● Wait when the child stops eating and then offer again.
● Give finger foods that the child can feed him/herself.
● Minimize distractions if the child loses interest easily.
● Stay with the child through the meal and be attentive.
With these positive and effective methods - both parent and child will have a positive eating experience and children will develop trust in their parents or caregiver in trying new food items. If you are having concerns for a child who is a picky eater, consult a pediatrician to give you tips on parenting or to assess if your child has an underlying medical condition that makes him or her avoid a certain food. In cases of potential child abuse, take action and report these incidences to the authorities or to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.
• Batsell Jr, W. R., Brown, A. S., Ansfield, M. E., & Paschall, G. Y. (2002). “You will eat all of that!”: A retrospective analysis of forced consumption episodes. Appetite, 38(3), 211-219.
• United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commissioner (1995). Convention on the Rights of the Child. United Nations Human Rights. Date Accessed 02 November 2021. Retrieved from https://www.ohchr.org/en/professionalinterest/pages/crc.aspx
• Antoinette Laskey, & Andrew Sirotnak. (2020). Child Abuse: Medical Diagnosis and Management: Vol. 4th edition. American Academy of Pediatrics.