Kicking off our Expert Insights series we are delighted to introduce Dr Emma Haycraft, interviewed recently. A Senior Lecturer in Psychology at Loughborough University, her research focuses primarily on parent-child interactions, particularly in the context of feeding, eating and mealtimes. She is currently leading a British Heart Foundation-funded project which is looking at ways to reduce the co-occurrence of sedentary behaviour and unhealthy snacking in young children. Emma has also co-developed the Child Feeding Guide; a website and mobile app aimed at supporting parents with a fussy or faddy child to achieve healthy, happy mealtimes. We look forward to partnering with Dr Haycraft in a series of Feed Your Children Well events.
Here she shares her thoughts about issues every parent and carer grapple with.
What is the most detrimental dietary problem?
Not eating a healthy, balanced diet. Eating a variety of food groups helps to ensure that children receive protein, carbohydrate, fat, vitamins, and minerals; everything they need for healthy development. Eating a poor diet can be linked to all sorts of problems such as obesity, poor concentration, lack of energy, and so on, so the value of feeding children a varied, nutritious diet shouldn’t be underestimated.
We read a lot about cutting out sugar and saturated fat etc. from a child’s diet – is it really an easy-win?
These foods don’t need to be completely removed from a child’s (or an adult’s) diet but not eating too many unhealthy ‘junk’ foods is important for maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Eating sugary and high fat foods only in moderation, as part of a healthy, varied diet, is what’s recommended.
Do you think placing strict rules on diet at an early age sets up children for a healthy future or for unhealthy rebellion in later years?
There is a lot of evidence which suggests that if a food is overtly restricted (e.g., “You can’t have any of those crisps”), it makes the food more desirable and children are then likely to eat more of the ‘restricted’ food when given the opportunity to do so at other times. So, yes, research indicates that really strict rules can often have unintended consequences. It’s better to allow foods in moderation. If parents or caregivers want to limit the unhealthy foods their children eat or have access to, it’s better to do this covertly – i.e. by not having the food in the house or not walking past the ice cream van in the park.
You’ve spent 10 years researching parent-child interaction at mealtimes, what was your (for want of a better word) takeaway from this project?
Eating meals as a family is really beneficial. It doesn’t have to be every mealtime, but family meals around the table are valuable for promoting healthy eating behaviours, facilitating communication and family interactions, and allowing opportunities for role modeling – for children to see what and how others eat – so trying to eat together at least once or twice a week can really help children to develop healthy relationships with food.
What is the Child Feeding Guide?
The Child Feeding Guide is a website and free mobile app that has been developed by me and my colleagues, Dr Gemma Witcomb and Dr Claire Farrow (www.childfeedingguide.co.uk). It provides evidence-based information, tips and tools for managing difficult or fussy eating behaviours in children. It helps caregivers to understand why their child is “fussy” and what they can do to improve mealtimes and to establish lifelong healthy eating habits. Fussy eating in children is really quite common and so we wanted to share our knowledge with parents and caregivers who told us that they had previously found it difficult to find support with feeding their little ones after they’ve been weaned onto solid foods. The Child Feeding Guide fills this gap and parents and caregivers tell us that it’s really valuable.
Could you please share 3 tips for parents to help children build a good relationship with food?
Never pressure or force your child to eat something that they don’t want to. Pressure can have the opposite effect to what’s intended and it can actually make your child less likely to eat a food. Your child may need some gentle encouragement to try a new or a disliked food, but never force them to eat it. It can take up to 20 offerings of a food before a child starts to like and enjoy it.
Be a good role model. Children love to copy and if you want your child to eat their greens, they’re much more likely to do this if they see you eating and enjoying them too.
Don’t use food as a reward, either for good behaviour or for eating another, lesser-liked food. Using food as a reward can mean that the reward food becomes ‘prized’ and more highly desired by the child. It can also alter children’s relationships with food by linking eating to external factors, such as doing something well, rather than internal feelings of hunger. Instead, use kisses, cuddles, a trip to a favoured place, like the park, a sticker, or a small toy as a reward.
Join Dr Haycraft and Jill Wheatcroft, Lecturer in Child Health on November 6th in London for two Feed Your Children Well special events. Click here for more information about the morning session or here for the alternative evening session.
Interviewed by Lucy Morris