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What’s Your Feeding Style? Parenting Interactions, Explained

Learn about your parental feeding style and whether it’s helping you raise a healthy eater, and what you can do if it’s not.

You have a hairstyle, a fashion style, a style of walking and talking, and more. You also have a parental feeding style — or maybe several feeding styles rolled into one.

In this article, you’ll learn the four common parental feeding styles, how they affect child eating, and how they show up in the feeding environment, day-to-day.

What's your parental feeding style?

What is a Parental Feeding Style?

Your feeding style summarizes the general attitudes and philosophies you have about feeding your child.

There are four recognized parental feeding styles: Controlling, Indulgent, Uninvolved and Diplomatic.

Each feeding style influences our daily interactions around the meal table (or specific feeding practices) and our child’s eating habits, eating behaviors, and relationship with food.  

As a pediatric nutritionist, I think understanding this concept is essential.

Parental Feeding: The Hardest Job of Parenthood

Feeding your child is arguably one of the most time-consuming and grueling jobs of parenthood.  It’s often thankless and sometimes plagued with parental insecurity and low confidence.

Many parents struggle and muddle through the parent-child interactions around feeding their children. 

Not to mention the daily effort can overwhelm even the most “together” caretakers. Think about all the planning, buying, preparing, serving, and cleaning up that goes along with feeding a family.

It’s a lot!

Here is a sobering statistic: throughout an 18 year childhood, you will probably feed your child over 28,000 times (assuming you provide the recommended age-appropriate meals and snacks). 

You really need to know how to raise a good eater, and in particular, how parental feeding styles play into healthy eating habits.

How Does Your Feeding Style Relate to Parenting?

Researchers in feeding kids suggest that feeding styles, or the attitudes and beliefs you maintain about feeding your child, will closely mirror your parenting style.

When you see other parents’ parenting, you probably recognize that everyone has their own style. It may also attract you to those parents who parent like you.

How you parent and how you feed are similar.

Although you use one feeding style most of the time, it can mingle and overlap with one or more of the four feeding styles.

You’re a Product of Your Own Childhood 

Our style mimics our experiences as a child. For example, if you had to finish your meal before you could leave the table, then you may require your own child to do the same. 

Your style is deeply ingrained from childhood (as so much of our thinking, reactions and actions are), and may become your “go to” method for feeding. Or, if it was a negative childhood experience, you may want to avoid repeating the past with your own children.

Discover the Four Different Styles

Not only are food and nutrition important considerations in the health of your child, the magnitude of daily feeding interactions is equally, if not more, important.

As I mentioned, you likely have one style prevalent in your day to day feeding interactions with your child. However, you can dip into every one of these styles from time to time.

For example, when you’re stressed and busy, you might be uninvolved in feeding your child. When you’re in party mode, you may be more indulgent. When your child has picky eating behaviors and is underweight, you might become more controlling (pushy) with feeding.

Let’s look at the four different feeding styles and see where you end up!

Mom and dad feeding their baby. What's your parental feeding style?

The Controlling Feeding Style (Formerly Authoritarian Style)

We also know this as a “parent-centered” feeding approach. The parent is the leader and has strict rules about eating, like finishing a meal before being dismissed from the table. In the realm of feeding, we associate this style with “The Clean Your Plate Club,” where rules about eating reign, from trying new foods to completing a meal.

Here are some common “rules” you might see:

You get dessert if you eat your dinner.

Parents pre-plate food for their children.

Eating is directed by the parent, such as “take another bite” or “finish your food,” rather than self-directed by the child and his natural appetite. 

The child may not have much say in food choice, and his food preferences and appetite may be ignored by the parent’s wishes around diet quality and “healthy” eating.

Because of this approach, children may lose a sense of their appetite and an ability to regulate it well. They may overeat to comply with parental requests to eat more or finish the plate of food. With this, they may lose their sensitivity to fullness cues. Or, they may eat less than they need because they’re pushed or pressured too much and this turns off the appetite.

Weight problems, both underweight and weight gain, are associated with this feeding style in the research. 

Various kids eating representing Parental Feeding Styles

Indulgent Feeding Style

Being indulgent is also known as the lax or loose style of parenting around food. I often refer to the permissive parent as “The ‘Yes’ Parent,” someone who shows high responsiveness to their child. 

A parent with this style shows the following characteristics: 

Even though “no” or limitations may be the first response to extra food requests or treats, “yes” ultimately reigns.  

The rules and limits around food and eating are lax, or loose.

The parent is hyper-sensitive to the child’s needs, like food preferences and and the child’s hunger and food requests, especially at snack time.

The classic example of this is the mother who is attempting to manage the vocal child in the grocery store who wants candy at the checkout stand.  He begs and begs, hearing, “no, no, no…” until Mom wears down and says, “Well….okay, I guess so.”  

Children raised with an indulgent style of feeding have a tough time self-regulating their food intake, particularly around sweets.

I frequently see a lack of structured meals and snacks, and a lack of food boundaries.

As a result, children may struggle with a healthy weight, as research shows there may be few limits on high-calorie foods and an associated higher weight status.

[Watch What’s Your Parent Feeding Style on YouTube!]

The Uninvolved Feeding Style

This style is less studied in the literature, but involves low responsiveness to the needs of the child with regard to food, feeding and eating. As a practitioner, I have seen it in action.

The parent may be:

Ill-prepared with food, not shopping for food regularly. Cabinets and refrigerators may be empty or lacking in a variety of food. (Note: This is in reference to food secure homes; children from low-income families may live with food insecurity and unpredictability. How that may affect their positive relationship with food is unknown).

There may be no plan for meals, or meals may be left to the last minute.

Food and eating may lack importance to the parent, and that may transfer to feeding their child.

Children who experience an uninvolved feeding style may feel insecure or nervous about food, being unsure about when they will have their next meal, if they will like it, or whether it will be enough.  

These children may become overly focused on food, participate in emotional overeating, or frequently question the timing and details around mealtime.

Feeding Styles May Interfere with Your Child’s Healthy Relationship with Food

The three feeding styles – controlling, indulgent and uninvolved — are considered to be counterproductive feeding styles. In short, they interfere with your child’s developing relationship with food. In other words, how they see food, how they interact with it, and how they view themselves in relationship with food.

A poor relationship with food can lead to poor food choices, under- or overeating, and/or poor self-image and self-esteem.

It’s so important to move toward a positive feeding style! And this is where the diplomatic feeding style enters the picture.

The Diplomatic Feeding Style (formerly Authoritative Feeding Style)

I call this the “Love with Limits” feeding style, because it promotes independent thinking and eating regulation within your child, but it also sets boundaries your child is expected to operate in.

The diplomatic feeding style focuses on the details around the meal (what will be served, when it will happen, and where it will be served), but allows the child to decide if they will eat what is prepared, and how much they will eat.  

This diplomacy in feeding is based in The Division of Responsibility, coined by Ellyn Satter, and the research around this feeding style.

Trusting your child — his ability to recognize hunger and fullness signals and then eat the amount of food to satisfy those cues — forms the basis of the diplomatic feeding style.

Food boundaries and limits support the structure of meals and snacks, too.

Children raised with the authoritative style are leaner, better at regulating their food consumption, and secure with food and eating, according to the research. 

In fact, the most current research suggests this style of parental feeding is an effective way to promote healthy eaters. 

Children of authoritative parents seem to have fewer struggles with eating healthy foods!

What about Parent Feeding Styles for Babies?

Good question! In young infants and toddlers, responsive feeding is the focus. This lays the foundation for later childhood (hello, toddlerhood!) when feeding styles and the associated feeding practices can get troublesome.

Need More Help in Moving Toward a Positive Feeding Style?

Tune into my podcast where I interview experts in child nutrition and feeding, as well as share my own views on what it means to be a great feeder.

My program, The Nourished Child Blueprint, does a deep dive into feeding styles, the daily practices we use when feeding kids, and how these play out in their autonomy with food and relationship with it.

Last, be sure to join my newsletter,Ā The Munch, where I answer parent questions, review the latest science in child nutrition and feeding, and help you learn more!

Healthy Habits Quiz - Find out if you're helping your child thrive at every size!

I updated this post in February 2024.

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