By Bobbi Boteler, RD, LD, CEDRD.
I had the opportunity to speak at my children’s PTA this past month. Many parents were inquiring about “healthy meals and snacks” that are family friendly. I was honored they thought of me as their guide. I took this as an opportunity to further educate parents and teachers on Health at Every Size, Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility with Feeding, along with some of the curriculum changes we have been working on behind the scenes with the county.
I wanted to preface my talk with a gentle reminder to parents that there is no “perfect” when it comes to feeding your family.
I feel there is so much unspoken pressure on especially moms, to have a picture-perfect, Pinterest-ready, meal on the table more often than not. As a mom of 3 who works part time and doesn’t find cooking at all thrilling, this is not my reality most days.
I pulled a Brene Brown and showed some vulnerability, sharing about a time my husband fed my three kids chips with ketchup on paper plates for breakfast one Saturday morning while I was at work. I wanted to die, but after I pulled myself together, I reminded myself they were safe, being fed preferred, familiar food and they were all sitting down at the meal together.
What exactly is our job as parents anyways?
Ellyn Satter lays this out for us beautifully with her Division of Responsibility. Parents have certain jobs in the feeding process and children likewise. For Parents, our jobs include WHAT we are feeding our children, WHEN in the day, and WHERE at. So our main duty is to provide a wholesome variety of food at regular time intervals in an environment with little distractions other than family conversation. This leaves our children with 2 main jobs around food. They get to decide HOW MUCH they eat of any food served, and WHETHER or not they even eat.
This is where many well-intended parenting around food often backfires.
To set the stage, we have to remind ourselves of what normal child eating behaviors look like. Children often eat erratically, some days eating a whole lot, and other days barely touching anything. A child may love a food one day, and insist they hate it another. It is also normal for children to be skeptical of new or unfamiliar foods. It can be stressful for parents to sit back and watch these types of behaviors without interfering. Interference around feeding is the main thing that disrupts a child’s ability to feed him/herself intuitively.
What does interference, or pressure around feeding look like?
It can be positive:
Praising, reminding, bribing, rewarding, applauding, playing games, talking about nutrition, giving stickers, making special food, serving vegetables first
It can be negative:
Restricting amounts or types of foods, coaxing, punishing, shaming, criticizing, begging, withholding dessert, treats, or fun activities
Interference around child feeding can also appear like old-fashioned “good parenting”:
Insisting on “no thank you bites”, reminding child to taste, lick or eat her veggies, warning her she will be hungry later, hiding veggies in foods, allowing her to snack on whatever she wants between meals.
Pressure around feeding always backfires:
Trying to get a child to eat more than she wants makes her eat less
Trying to get her to eat less than she wants makes her eat more
Trying to get her to eat certain foods makes her avoid them
I love this quote by Katja Rowell, MD and Jenny McGlothlin, MS, SLP: “If children eat to please you, avoid punishment or earn a toy, that reinforces external motivation and they learn to eat for the wrong reasons.”
So what CAN we do as parents to raise confident, competent, intuitive eaters?
Follow the Division of Responsibility by Ellyn Satter. Stay in your lane as a parent in the feeding relationship!
Avoid pressure of any type
Have family meals daily when possible. A family meal can be breakfast before school!
Offer a variety of food, familiar and new
Eat WITH our kids, the same foods!
Allow them to decide what is on the menu occasionally
Involve them in the food prep
Do not moralize or label food as “good”, “bad”, “junk” etc
How we talk to our kids about food impacts how they feel about their bodies and around food.
Talking about food and nutrition from a place of fear, shame and guilt is counterproductive in empowering them to make life-long changes. Here are some conversations to have with your kids around tuning in to their own personal wisdom around their bodies and what they need:
Your body knows how much you need to eat. TRUST YOUR BODY
What does it feel like when your body needs food? (individual hunger cues)
What does it feel like when you are ready to stop eating? (individual fullness cues)
“Everybody’s different” with respect to food preference and energy requirements
So where exactly does NUTRITION fall around feeding our children?
Talk less, model more!
Emphasize less about nutrition and more about the feeding relationship, how our children feel about food and their bodies, and their ability to withstand diet culture in the coming years
Stop teaching nutrition from a place of fear
Food doesn’t need to be “perfect”
It’s ok to use easy and convenient meals to get food on the table.
Being a parent is one of our most important jobs here on earth, and considering the prevalence of eating disorders and dieting in our culture, we have a lot of work to do around raising resilient little eaters that are able to carry that with them into adolescent and adulthood. If you have any questions about family nutrition or family mealtime, please contact one of our amazing dietitians. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or me at email@example.com