Hungry? Eat food. Full? Stop eating. How beautifully simplistic this idea is. However, eating in the real world is rarely as straight forward as this.
While a basic course in biology would explain the need to consume food in terms of refuelling our bodies when they are depleted of energy, eating is often guided by several other factors. The hands on the clock, for example, have a huge influence on when we eat. We’ve been socialised to eat at certain times, with specific breaks in the working or school day, and possibly a mother that runs a tight ship (“dinner will be on the table at 5pm, miss it and miss out, I won’t be making another meal for you later….” insert own mother’s voice and/or crack of whip if applicable ).
Other influences on what, when and how much we eat may similarly have been learned over time and are not simply dictated by physiological need. And how have they been learned? Possibly as a result of, dare I say it, parenting techniques!

Now we all have parenting guilt. The wrench you feel when you leave your child at nursery, their little hand outstretched towards you. The moment when you turn your back and they fall and hurt themselves. Or – and I raise my hand in admission of guilt – when you plonk them in front of the TV in the hope that for once, just once, you can go to the loo without an audience! My intention is not to add feeding to the list of things that we parents should be feeling guilty about. Rather to simply raise awareness about how some of our actions around feeding can influence how our children learn to eat.

Now bribery is a biggie; when food has taken on a whole new function – as a tool with which to control behaviour or to encourage eating other foods. Utterances such as “If you are good while we are at the shops, you can have some sweets” or “If you eat all of your peas, then you can have your pudding” tend to pop out of our mouths without even realising it. And why are we so quick to use food as a bargaining tool so much? Because generally it is very effective! As this tired parent knows, we often go for strategies that yield the quick wins. And when a child is hurt, a little treat can be the miracle cure. However, while it might be effective in achieving the immediate goal (being good at the shops, eating the peas, or calming down when hurt) it can have longer term effects that are less desirable:

• Decreased liking for non-bribe foods: When used to bribe children to eat, liking for the food-to-be-eaten decreases. Therefore, offering a child a tasty pudding in exchange for eating their peas will not help in encouraging them to like peas. Rather, they could begin to dislike them.

• Increased liking for bribe foods: Foods that are used as bribes often become extremely liked and desired more. This is because they tend to be treat foods that may be restricted at other times. As such, they become ‘prized’. This can be damaging as research suggests that such foods tend to be overeaten when freely available.

• Development of an emotional crutch: When used to make a child feel better, children can become reliant on treats to help them to regulate their emotions. This has been associated with emotion-induced overeating in later life, and can contribute to overweight and obesity.

• Contribution to a poor diet: The foods that are most often used as bribes are often unhealthy, sugary treats and snacks that can contribute to overweight, obesity, and an unhealthy diet. Routinely using these foods as bribes means that these foods become part of your child’s everyday diet, which is something to be avoided.

The advice: picture yourself sat in your GCSE biology class and remember that food is fuel, not a bargaining tool.

Dr Gemma Witcomb

Dr Gemma Witcomb, Dr Emma Haycraft, and Dr Claire Farrow from Loughborough University have developed a free app and website to help parents and caregivers navigate feeding in the early years. If you would like to learn more about common feeding pitfalls and access tips and tools to help manage these, please take a look the Parents’ Guide to Child Feeding website or download the FREE Child Feeding Guide app, available for iPhone and shortly for Android. You can also follow them on Facebook and Twitter .