Don’t let your stress derail your kids’ eating habits

A grab bag of strategies can help parents weary from the pandemic keep their children's eating habits on track.

Like many other parents across the country, Tara Haelle and her husband suddenly found themselves under an immense amount of stress when the pandemic forced widespread stay-at-home lockdown orders in the first half of 2020. Between a booming workload, their two sons out of school, and bereft of the hired help they’d had pre-pandemic to juggle it all, the household’s eating habits went off the rails.

“It was so much harder to keep routines around meals and snacking,” she says. “We were constantly asking ourselves if the kids had eaten yet, and what did they want to eat, or they’d come into the office while we were both on phone calls and say they were hungry, and we’d tell them to just go get some chips or something!”

The family wasn’t alone in their stress-eating dilemma. One survey conducted last year found that more than 25 percent of the 8,000 participants reported weight gain from reduced activity and an increased consumption of sweet snacks and drinks. And an October 2021 study shows that pandemic stress diminished parents’ abilities to foster healthy eating environments for their kids. That has experts concerned about the long-term impacts on children’s ability to learn healthy eating habits.

“The stress that people were experiencing during COVID was so different than any kind of other stress that parents typically experience,” says Leslie Frankel, associate professor of human development and family studies at the University of Houston and author of the study. “We’re a year and a half into this—it’s not just a blip in children’s lives now. I do think it will have impacts on children’s eating habits.”

Even the best-established habits take a hit during stressful times. However, decades of science has firmly established that forming healthy eating habits during early childhood is important to lifelong health. And when it comes to a child’s food preferences, parents are critically important influences.

“People only want to help their kids and don’t want them to have health issues that we’ve seen so many other people in America experience,” Frankel says, adding that good lifelong eating habits happen most naturally when families eat together around meals—something that’s not always possible during stressful times.

The upcoming holiday feasting will likely only compound ongoing stress and eating issues related to the pandemic. But if you’re concerned about getting your family back into healthy eating habits, it’s possible to shift your approach to food with your kids. Here’s how to get started.

Stress eating during the pandemic

Holiday stress can be tough on many people—but it passes. Pandemic stress, on the other hand, has been prolonged and offered scientists opportunities to learn more about how parents’ stress translates into changes in their children’s eating behaviors.

Frankel’s study surveyed 119 parents of kids ages two to seven between April and June 2020, the height of lockdown. With coauthor Caroline Kuno, Frankel quantified what many parents probably felt during their shelter-in-place lockdown: Pandemic stress made it much more difficult to manage their children’s eating habits.

For instance, the study found that stressed-out parents turned more often to “nonresponsive feeding behaviors,” such as using food as a reward or for comfort, pressuring kids to clean their plates, or not believing a child when they say they’re hungry or full. In turn, these actions connect to a decline in kids’ ability to develop and maintain healthy eating habits on their own.

“When we do things like that, we’re teaching them to eat for external reasons, such as for a reward, or because someone told them to,” Frankel says.

Katie Loth, a dietician and clinical researcher at the University of Minnesota, also looked at family stress during the pandemic and was able to compare self-reported stress from the same families both before and during the pandemic. While her research didn’t show an increase of negative feeding behaviors, she did find a decline in positive behaviors, like encouragement to try less-favored foods, or talking about why certain foods are more healthful than others. Her research also found that stress or negative moods earlier in the day translated to less structure around eating: for example, erratic mealtimes or letting kids indulge in more snacks because a dinner plan hadn’t been thought out.

“It makes sense, if you’re having a hard day, that rallying to make a healthy dinner is more challenging,” Loth says. “But I hope parents can recognize that although it is harder during times of stress to provide structure and opportunities for their children to have autonomy, it’s the structure that can help them navigate that stress.”

Getting back on the apple cart

Bribing kids to eat or hitting the drive-through once again can certainly make life easier. But relying too much on these techniques can establish hard-to-break habits.

“Kids are hedonists,” says Jennifer Fisher, a childhood nutrition and eating behavior expert at Temple University. “They’re not thinking about long-term health outcomes. They’re thinking about what tastes good.”

The key, she says, is to adapt to your child’s eating style—picky eater vs. enthusiastic omnivore, for instance—while still being “the grown-up” as you develop your kid’s relationship with food. Fisher adds that little bit of front-loading goes a long way in preventing unhealthy, stress-induced decisions.

“It’s very similar to going to the gym—the more you have a routine, the less you have to struggle with yourself,” she says. “Feeding kids is very similar. Set things up in a way that makes your life easier, so you don’t go through battles from meal to meal, or between yourself and your child.”

One size does not fit all, but the experts offered a few tips for helping your little munchers get back on track—and staying there.

Renovate the snack drawer. Empowering kids to make choices is a huge factor in their ability to develop lifelong healthy eating habits. This doesn’t mean they get to pick what they eat all the time; instead, they have options. A drawer full of snacks that the caregiver feels good about supports that kind of autonomy, Fisher says.

Expand the definition of meals. The classic advice for learning healthy eating behaviors stresses the importance of mealtimes around the table. But Fisher says that this just isn’t realistic for many families. Instead, consider redefining what a “meal” is. For instance, snack times offer opportunities to slow down, connect, listen, and talk with your child over food.

Modeling matters. Kids watch their parents like hawks—but they do the same with their peers. “There’s a classic study: Put a broccoli hater at a table with three kids who like it, and lo, the broccoli hater is more likely to try it and eat some more,” Fisher says. Collaborate with other parents to see if your kid might try something at a friend’s house that she wouldn’t eat at home.

Praise (and stickers) work. Instead of coercion or bribery, think about other motivators for children to sample foods they’re iffy about. For instance, try praise (“Great job trying that food! It’s one of my favorites!”), nicknaming foods (“tiny trees” for asparagus), and offering small non-food incentives like stickers. The goal is to help kids build positive associations with foods, Loth says.

Go frozen. Budget-limited or time-crunched families might have a tough time justifying the purchase and preparation of fresh veggies that just get chucked at the end of dinner. Frozen vegetables provide a way to offer a few morsels at a time to expose kids more often to a less-preferred food, usually vegetables. It might take many tries for a child to eventually eat these types of food willingly. But as Fisher says, “That allows children to build a sense of learned safety and familiarity.”

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