By Karnie Babikian, Nutrition Educator
Parents play a big role in feeding their children and teaching them how to eat. It is important to recognize, however, that children need autonomy in this process. When parents take too much control during feeding, though with good intention, mealtimes become more stressful– parents feel the pressure of getting their child to eat enough of all the right foods and children feel the pressure to finish everything being offered. A big part of teaching children how to eat is helping them learn how to eat intuitively: to eat when they are hungry and stop when they are full.
So, how can parents prevent taking too much or too little control during feeding? The Satter Division of Responsibility in Feeding is a framework that explains and separates the roles of parent and child to help make mealtimes more successful and enjoyable. Dividing responsibilities empowers parents to be leaders in feeding their children, meaning no longer being a short-order cook or having to bargain fruit snacks for veggies. This approach doesn’t set strict rules, but rather encourages parents to set boundaries when feeding their children.
Ellyn Satter – internationally recognized dietitian and family therapist– is the expert in all things eating and feeding for children. Satter has developed several evidence-based approaches that focus on solving feeding problems and raising competent eaters. You might be wondering…What is a competent eater? Competent eaters are described to be positive, comfortable, relaxed, self-trusting, and joyful at mealtimes. This might sound far from reach for families who feel like the dinner menu always requires negotiation or that every breakfast is a battle. But ultimately, children who have achieved eating competence have demonstrated better nutritional status, physical activity levels, and sleep quality.
Parents are responsible for what, where, and when. Children are responsible for whether and how much.
For toddlers through adolescence, parents are responsible for choosing what will be offered at every meal, when meals are offered and where they will be offered. Children will be responsible for determining whether to eat what is offered and how much of it to eat.
Choosing what to offer allows parents to provide a variety of nutrient dense foods instead of resorting to the few foods their children might request at every meal. Setting times for when meals and snacks will occur helps create routine, avoid excessive snacking in between meals, and prevent having kids come to the table too full for their meal. Allowing children to determine whether and how much to eat teaches them how to listen to their bodies and gives them the power to stop eating when they are full. Children will feel more relaxed coming to the dinner table when they know there is no pressure to eat everything.
It might feel difficult to take charge of choosing what your child will be offered instead of following their lead and asking what they want to eat. Here are some strategies that will make it more likely for children to be accepting of what you offer:
- Offer new foods with their preferred or ‘safe’ foods, ones you know they would always be willing to eat.
- Offer new, more unfamiliar food in smaller quantities to make it less overwhelming.
- Do not limit the quantity of preferred or ‘safe’ food they are allowed to have.
- Never pressure them to eat any of the food offered.
While statements like “please eat one more bite, for me!” might come from a place of good intention, phrases like this disregard the child’s responsibility of choosing how much to eat. These phrases can be hindering your child’s progress with eating because it teaches them to eat for love and approval. Instead, something like “Is your stomach telling you that you are full?” can help teach your child to be mindful of how they are feeling and not overeat.
As a reminder, every child grows and learns to eat in different ways. If meals are continuing to be challenging even with the practice of the Division of Responsibility, there might be underlying feeding issues that are at play. In this case, further assessment by primary care pediatricians and feeding therapists might be necessary.
Parents’ feeding jobs:
- Choose and prepare the food.
- Provide regular meals and snacks.
- Make eating times pleasant.
- Step-by-step, show children by example how to behave at family mealtime.
- Be considerate of children’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
- Not let children have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
- Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them.
Children’s eating jobs:
- Children will eat.
- They will eat the amount they need.
- They will learn to eat the food their parents eat.
- They will grow predictably.
- They will learn to behave well at mealtime.
For more about raising healthy children who are a joy to feed, read Part two, “How to raise good eaters,” in Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. For the evidence, read The Satter Feeding Dynamics Model.
More parent resources here