Have you ever told your child, “you need to take just one more bite?” If so, you are not alone! Many families have some version of the one bite rule in their home. In fact, many parents have told me that the idea was first mentioned to them by their child’s pediatrician! While the one bite rule may seem innocent enough – I mean it is only one bite, right?! – this is something I recommend most families stop. Research has shown that the one bite rule is potentially harmful for children, especially those that are underweight or picky eaters.
While many families have good intentions behind the one bite rule, this rule is considered a form of negative parental pressure. By enforcing the one bite rule, we are pressuring children to take just one more bite before they can stop eating. If you have this rule in place in your home, I am sure you have realized it is not always well received by your little ones, hence the negative part of the pressure.
Negative parental pressure to eat can cause several undesirable results. First, it has been shown that it can make picky eating behaviors worse and it can cause picky eating behaviors to form in those that were not previously considered picky.1-4 Research has also found that children who experience negative parental pressure at mealtimes eat less than those without that parental pressure in place at their home.1,5-10 I believe that these outcomes mainly occur for two reasons. One, it’s a game of tug-of-war, where the kids are exerting their control and resisting giving into the pressure they feel. Two, there is a negative environment around food making them less likely to eat the amount of food they need and less willing to learn to like new foods.
Long-term negative parental pressure to eat has been linked to worse appetite regulation in children and poorer weight status.11-13 This occurs because children have been consistently told to ignore their internal satiety or fullness cues and instead to overeat. Therefore, over time they have learned to rely on external signals to tell them whether or not they are still hungry instead of relying on their own body.
Lastly, the one bite rule along with other forms of negative parental pressure to eat can negatively affect child-parent relationships and make mealtimes unenjoyable for the whole family. Overall, there is a lot of evidence telling us that we should stop negative parental pressure at mealtimes, including the one bite rule. However, like I mentioned previously, most parents typically have good intentions behind the implementation of this rule and that is because they desperately want their child to eat more and get the nutrients they need to thrive.
The number one reason parents tell me they implemented the one bite rule is because they know that healthy foods are good for their children, but they fear their children are not eating enough of those foods. However, the nutritional impact of one bite of food is minimal. Let me prove it to you.
One green pea has 0.01 grams of protein, which is 0.08% of a toddler’s daily protein needs. It also has 0.01 grams of dietary fiber (0.17% of a toddler’s daily needs) and 0.12 mg of vitamin C (0.8% of a toddler’s daily vitamin C needs). On the other hand, one blueberry has 0.03 grams of dietary fiber (0.54% of a toddler’s daily needs), 0.13 mg of vitamin C (0.88% of a toddler’s daily needs), and 0.26 mg of vitamin K (0.87% of a toddler’s daily needs).
These one bites contribute fractional amounts of nutrients – less than 1% of the nutrients toddlers need daily. These percentages are even lower for older children, since for most nutrients, the amount we need daily increases as children grow up. This is why I believe the nutritional impact of one more bite of food does not outweigh the potential negative effects of implementing parental pressure at mealtime.
Instead of implementing forms of negative parental pressure at meals, such as the one bite rule, I recommend that families take all of the pressure off the table. Families should instead create a neutral food environment, where food is prepared and served with love, but children are empowered to try it only if they want. It is important that children should be solely in-charge of whether or not they choose to eat something offered to them at meals and how much food they eat at meals. This allows them to continue to listen to and trust their internal hunger and satiety signals.
It is important to note that just because you are not implementing the one bite rule does not mean that you cannot expose your child to the foods you know are good for them. It is important that you still serve them all of the foods prepared for the family meal, even if they haven’t learned to love it yet. You can also make food exposures fun and engaging, while still having a low-pressure food environment. Some fun ways to empower your child to engage with food, if they do not want to eat it is, to encourage food play (e.g., “how many slices of X do you think we can stack to make a tower?”) and engage their other senses (e.g., “what do you think it smells like?”). Remember, eating should be an enjoyable experience for the entire family and family meals should give all family members a chance to bond and connect instead of battling over one more bite of food.
Disclaimer: This information contained in this blog is based on the experience of the author and science-based research. It is not intended to replace medical advice or diagnosis from a physician or other medical provider. This blog is not intended as a substitute for a consultation with a physician or other healthcare provider. The author is not responsible for any adverse effects or consequences resulting from the use of any suggestions discussed in this blog.
Kerry Jones, MPH, RDN, LDN is a Registered Dietitian with a Master’s degree in Public Health who is passionate about helping growing families navigate life and achieve all of their milestones along the way. She works with women who are trying to conceive, pregnant, breastfeeding, or postpartum and children to help manage medical conditions, tackle picky eating, and establish a good family relationship with food. With an overload of nutrition information available, Kerry understands how difficult it can be to know which foods are best for you and your family.
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