Preschool children are notoriously picky eaters. I am surprised that no one has written a follow up to Go the Fuck to Sleep entitled Shut Up and Eat your Effing Dinner, you Ungrateful Little Parasite. Exploratory toddlers may give you a few years of happily scoffing anything remotely edible, lulling you into thinking you've got a good eater, but all of a sudden they turn. They start dissecting their food, and singling out harmless ingredients for rejection.
A natural first response would be to employ the tactics of generations of vexed parents: reasoning (but you liked it before - it's yummy), bribery (no pudding until you've finished your greens) and threats (you can't get down from the table until you've cleared your plate). But show you care like this and kids swiftly wise up to the power-play potential of food refusal. There can be no winners in this situation – unless you're the boy who got away with only eating sweet biscuits for years – but his reign ended when Supernanny intervened.
When restrictions backfire
The effects of parental behaviour on children's eating habits have been well studied. For example, a paper published this year in the journal Appetite showed that children whose parents used restrictive feeding practices were more likely to work harder than average for edible treats, and to fill their boots when allowed five minutes' access to forbidden foods. The first experiment had children click a computer mouse four times to earn a cinnamon cookie, eight times for a second cookie, 16 times for a third, and so on. Most of them lost interest within 15 minutes but some persevered for the full 30 minutes, clicking up to 2,000 times. In the next experiment these same cookie-monster children consistently ate more crackers than the others during a five-minute daily window of availability (although all kids ate quite a lot of them because they had been restricted the rest of the day). And, it turned out, the children who ate the most had been subject to the most stringent food restrictions at home. "Although well intentioned, these tactics probably don't produce the desired result of promoting preferences for healthy foods," says Alison Ventura of the department of nutrition sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia. A 10-year study Ventura tells me about showed that girls whose diets were heavily restricted by their parents grew up less able to regulate their calorie intake and were heavier.
Covert v overt control
Obviously you have to supervise children's diets, but the trick is to be underhand about it. Back in 2006, Jane Ogden of the University of Surrey's psychology department divided food restriction practices into categories. The upshot was that overt restriction, whereby the children know there's ice-cream in the freezer, and crisps in the snack cupboard, but they aren't allowed them, is unhelpful. It will most likely lead to kids fixating on these foods and wanting them really badly. When their parents aren't around and they have a chance to eat these foods, they get a little out of control. Covert restriction, on the other hand, is OK. This is where there are no palatable snacks (as the scientists call them) in the home, so there are no forbidden fruits to desire and feel resentful about being denied.
Finish your dinner
"When a parent is telling a child how much to eat," says Ventura, "they're not allowing the child to learn how to control their own eating." The academic literature implies that constantly telling kids how much they need to eat will diminish their ability to regulate their own intake by eating when hungry and stopping when full. "The child gets the message that their internal cues aren't important and external cues are important," adds Ventura. It's difficult because wasting food is terrible, and parents worry about their children eating enough to provide the necessary nutrients and energy. But, by the same token, no one wants to instill their child with a habit of eating in the absence of hunger. And if it's their greens you want them to polish off, you'll get the double whammy of also making them like vegetables less. Furthermore, attempting to increase veg intake through bribery with pudding will also unhelpfully associate greens with chores and booby prizes in the child's eyes, while bigging up pudding as the best thing ever.
This is all very well but is it really practical, I ask Ventura, to scrape half-platefuls of food into the bin only to have to doll out snacks between meals? She refers me to the ideas of dietitian Ellyn Satter, who is full of advice on how parents can make use of all this research. Essentially, at each meal, she says there's a division of responsibility: things that the parent can and should control and things the child can and should control. Parents can determine what food is offered (preferably an array of healthy foods), and when and where to eat – setting the structure and routine of meal times. Children can determine whether or not they want to eat and how much. If they don't want to eat very much, tell them that it's their choice and it's OK to eat in response to hunger and fullness cues, but if they don't eat at this meal, there isn't anything else coming until the next one – and hold them to it.
I tried this, and it totally worked. My son said he was full and wanted to get down to play halfway through his spag bol. "It's up to you," I said, in the calm manner of a well-informed, methodical parent (there's a first time for everything), "but if you get down now, you won't be able to eat anything else until breakfast." And he stuffed the rest down his cakehole quick smart. Heh. I don't think he was forcing himself to eat more even though he was full (not good) – I think his attention had wandered and what I said refocused him. What are your feeding-time policies?
Follow @amy_fleming on Twitter.