Learn about your style of feeding your child 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, their impact on your child’s eating, and how they show up day-to-day.
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 and our child’s eating habits 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 feeding their children.
Not to mention the daily effort can overwhelm. 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 healthy eater, and in particular, how parental feeding styles play into the big picture.
How Does Your Feeding Style Relate to Parenting?
Researchers in feeding kids suggest that feeding styles, or the attitude you use in 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 feeding styles.
You’re a Product of Your Own Childhood Feeding
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, 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.
Discover the Four Parental Feeding 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 indulgent. When your child is picky and underweight, you might become more controlling with feeding.
Let’s look at the four different feeding styles and see where you end up!
Which Feeding Style Represents You?
The scientific literature recognizes four different approaches. Over time, some of these descriptive names have changed, and more recently they are being redefined under the term “food parenting.”
I have taught a course for nutrition professionals to help them understand this new material.
Keep reading to the bottom, as I’ve saved the most desirable feeding style for last. It’s the one you’ll want to work toward.
The Controlling Feeding Style
We also know this as a “parent-centered” feeding approach. 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:
Dessert is contingent upon eating dinner.
Parents plate the 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 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. Or, they may eat less than they need because they’re pushed or pressured too much.
Weight problems, both underweight and overweight, are associated with this 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.”
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 food preferences and requests.
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.
As a result, children may struggle with their weight, as research shows there may be few limits on high-calorie foods.
The Uninvolved Feeding Style
This style is less studied in the literature, but as a practitioner, I have seen it in action.
The parent is often:
Ill-prepared in the food department, not shopping for food regularly. Cabinets and refrigerators may be empty or lacking in a variety of food.
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 and frequently question the timing and details around mealtime.
Negative Feeding Styles Interfere with Your Child’s Relationship with Food
The three feeding styles – controlling, indulgent and uninvolved — are considered to be negative feeding styles. In short, they interfere with your child’s developing relationship with food. In other words, how he sees food, how he interacts with it, and how he views himself 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
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 in this feeding practice.
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 or limits also compose the foundation of this feeding style.
Children raised using this feeding style are leaner, good at regulating their food consumption, and secure with food and eating, according to the research.
In fact, the most current research advocates this style of parental feeding style as an effective childhood obesity prevention approach.
I notice that parents who approach feeding kids in this manner have fewer struggles with healthy eating in their kids!
What about 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.
Take a look at my parent nutrition education website, The Nourished Child, where you’ll find several workshops, classes and guidebooks to help you raise a healthy child, inside and out.
Last, be sure to join my newsletter, The Munch, where I answer parent questions, review the latest science in child nutrition and feeding, and help you learn more!
I updated this post in March 2022.