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Parenting Styles and Feeding Practices

Written by: Anika Christ, RD, CISSN, CPT - Life Time Fitness

Children today are more overweight than ever. The percentage of this population continues to grow at an alarming rate — putting them at risk to be the first generation not expected to outlive their parents.  There are many risk factors that increase a child’s likeliness to become overweight, but did you know your parenting style could be one of them?  Recent studies highlight how parental approaches can influence a child’s weight and relationship with food. 

What’s Your Parenting Style?

Have you ever assessed your personal parenting style?  In simple terms, it typically describes how a parent interacts with a child in daily life.  Parenting style can be divided into four different types based on parental discipline techniques, responsiveness, nurturance and expectations of maturity.  Based on these dimensions, four styles have emerged:


Describes empathetic parenting with few rules. These parents tend to have very few demands of their children and tend to take on the status of being more of a friend than parent. 

Authoritarian : 

This style features high demand parenting with an emphasis on strict discipline and little warmth.  These parents tend to stress obedience with the approach of, “It’s my way or the highway”. 


This approach is responsive, empathetic and respectful. These parents maintain clear boundaries and expectations.  Rules are established but questions are allowed and dialogue encouraged. 


Parental style may be unemotional. No rules or expectations are established.  These parents are often low in responsiveness and communication. They may fulfill a child’s basic needs but are usually detached, even neglectful.   

Parents may categorize themselves as one the above styles or identify with multiple styles. In any case, the dominant parenting style usually mirrors the feeding style practiced at home.  With today’s obesity epidemic among our youth, parents might think a strict parenting approach will have the greatest impact on prevention.  But how do these parenting styles relate to a child’s weight?     

Parent Style = Feeding Style

In 2006, a Boston University study suggested that a parent’s rigidity was more likely to result in an overweight child.[i]  It also concluded that when parents provided clear-cut boundaries along with positive support, the children were less likely to be overweight by school age. These two findings give us a peek into how parenting styles can affect a child’s weight.   Let’s review how the four parenting styles translate into feeding styles.


This parenting style has become much more common in today’s world.  The child dictates what a meal contains (healthy or not) and largely has control of his/her nutrition.  These parents may choose foods made outside of the home (restaurant/fast food) because of their child’s demands.  Children of permissive parents are twice as likely to become overweight.[ii]


The authoritative feeder may determine the time of a meal and what foods are present, but allows the child to self serve and choose how much to eat.  Children of authoritative parents tend to be of normal weight and good at regulating their hunger and satiety.


These parents have high expectations for their children and, when relating to food, they tend to determine food type and portions. These are the “Clean your plate” parents.  They direct the food rules versus letting the child become conscious of hunger and fullness cues.   Children of authoritarian parents are four times more likely to be overweight than children of authoritative parents. 


When relating to feeding, uninvolved parents don’t have a set routine and don’t plan meals.  They may not even have food in the house.  Their children may become overly focused on food, wondering when the next meal is going to be. 

Do any of these styles sound familiar?  Baby Boomers might relate to the “clean plate club”, or authoritarian style, where children today tend to receive more permissive parenting and carry more control than children a couple decades ago.  Identifying an appropriate feeding style may be tough for parents.  With these definitions and the food relationship they each foster in children, the authoritative feeding style appears to be the optimal approach.

How to Be Authoritative

The Authoritative parenting style is often considered the “gold standard” due to its positive influence on child development.  Related to food, authoritative parents set limits for their children but also allow them to experiment with their own decision making skills.  Here are some steps on how to bring in more authoritative style to your eating patterns at home:

Provide the essential nutrients/foods at each meal, but allow your child to choose the amounts and to decide when he/she is full.

Focus on what your child needs, not just on wants.  Stay in control by dictating that dessert comes after vegetables and protein. 

For snacks, provide choices that are similar in nutrient value and let your child choose between two.  For example, offer baby carrots or green pepper slices alongside some hummus.  Avoid giving choices between packaged crackers and raw broccoli.

Establish positive eating routines so your children know you are in a control and what to expect.  This includes establishing regularly planned meals and meal times on most days. Encourage eating together as a family as much as possible.

This article is not intended for the treatment or prevention of disease, nor as a substitute for medical treatment, nor as an alternative to medical advice. Use of recommendations in this and other articles is at the choice and risk of the reader.


[i] Orr, Brian.  Parenting Style and Childhood Weight.  <>  Accessed April 25, 2011. 

[ii] Rhee, Kyung, et al.  Parenting Styles and Overweight Status in First Grade.  PEDIATRICS.  Vol. 117.  No. 6. (2006).

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Reader Comments (2)

Good article! Glad to know our household falls into the authoritative household, although sometimes when it comes to the choice of food we are a bit permissive. I recognize that and will try to change it.

October 5, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterWhitley79

I have felt my parenting of my 8 year old is the best choice I have chosen. My husband is overseas most times on business, and it's just as well because of our difference in technique--- he is inconsistant with "authoritarian" but is mostly too much "permissive" allowing our daughter to be an adult, make all her choices as if she is an adult at these tender ages. I am the "authoritative" parent. As parents we have a choice of what type of parent to be to our child, and looking around me I would ask myself "am I too old fashioned or is there an epidemic about to happen in 20 years when these children become adults " For the first time I feel I have some support with my authoritative parenting after reading this article. My friend is practicing "authoritarian" parenting in every aspect, but does not see herself doing so. Nobody as a parent, sees themselves making any mistakes in how we are parenting. I think I ask myself this question at least 3 times a day "Did I handle this situation properly as a parent?" I am not perfect but I just hope I do a good job by the time my child is an adult. For the rest of society, it may be a trend of how fast paced our lives have become, with the use of gadgets when we are "free" to be engaged in family time, let alone our commitments taking us away from our families. There is no right or wrong way to be a parent, not a course to graduate from to show others "I have a PhD in parenting". It's articles like these that we hope more parents can read and listen to. Unfortortunately, it's the parents who need the most help who don't read or want to read at the warning signs that their parenting is heading down the wrong direction. Then again, what do I know? In the end of everything, it's all about how much support you give your child from now until they are adults to make certain they are good and productive adults. If they are overweight, it's dependent upon on us, our parenting, as the article states, our habits (the children watch our actions---if we eat cookies and tell them to eat spinach), and genetics.
My parents were "authoritarian", clean your plate parents in every aspect including food and yes, I have struggled with weight. Now the pendulum has swung the other way and with express and ready-made processed foods readily available in our busy lives it's up to us to show that we place importance on cutting fruits and vegetables (especially green leafy as a separate food group) everyday to include in all of our meals and eating processed or fast food once in a while (every 14 days or so). This way I believe our children grow up balanced and healthy.

October 16, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNancy

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