Feeding Children: Use All The Pieces

EatRight Ontario is a dietitian service provided by the Dietitians of Canada, the nation’s most trusted authority on nutritional information and feeding practices. It is encouraging to see them endorsing and applying the Division of Responsibility in feeding, Well… most of it. Although EatRight Ontario’s advice to help your child develop better eating habits is based on Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility, it is not offered as a complete concept. It’s kind of like learning how to skydive. You can have the best plane and the most qualified instructor, none of which will do you any good without a parachute.

Hopefully, EatRight Ontario will soon update their suggestions to include all the pieces of an already existing and effective feeding model that successfully develops eating competence in children. Below are the EatRight Ontario tips to improve mealtimes with your child (in blockquotes) followed by the missing pieces of the feeding puzzle.

puzzle - one

The PARENT and/or caregiver’s job is to decide:

WHAT food and drinks are served at meals and snacks. Make only one family meal. Do not offer your child other options or their favourite foods if he refuses the family meal. Plan healthy balanced meals using Canada’s Food Guide.

Confusing: Do not offer your child other options or their favourite foods if he refuses the family meal.

What’s missing: Part of the parent’s responsibility of what to offer needs to include something your child is already familiar with. Children are, by design, inexperienced with food and withholding food your child can eat in hopes of encouraging him to try something new is just cruel. Offering unfamiliar food along with a familiar option or two is comforting for the child, and being comfortable around food increases the child’s trust in food

WHEN food is served. Offer meals and snacks at the same time every day. Your child will learn when to expect food to be served and it will help her to come to the table feeling hungry. Your child is more likely to try new foods when she is hungry at meal time.

Summary: Plan regular and predictable snacks and meals so that your child comes to the table hungry, but not famished. It is imperative that parents provide a positive, pleasant and pressure-free eating environment to build the child’s trust in getting fed before he will have any interest in trying something new.

WHERE food is served. Children eat better when the family eats at the table together.

Summary: Studies show that family meals do much more for children and adults than just learning to eat better.

puzzle - one point 5

The CHILD’s job is to decide:

IF she is going to eat. Your child will eat if she is hungry. Don’t worry – your child won’t starve herself! If she’s hungry she will eat even if her favourite foods are not in front of her.

Confusing: Don’t worry – your child won’t starve herself! If she’s hungry she will eat even if her favourite foods are not in front of her.

What’s missing: I really wish doctors and dietitans would stop saying ‘a child won’t starve’. I speak from experience. This statement is false! Nobody eats food they don’t trust. What is true, however, is that children want to do a good job with eating. While it is the child’s responsibility to choose to decline anything offered, it is the responsibility of the parent to help children be successful with food. (See the parent’s responsibility above.)

HOW MUCH he is going to eat. Trust that your child knows when he is hungry or full.

Summary: If the parent provides food that considers the eating ability of the child, the child will eat enough to satisfy his hunger. Withholding food the child can handle only erodes the child’s trust in the parent.

puzzle - two

Top 10 tips so your child won’t be picky

Plan family meal time. Eat meals at the table as a family. Do not offer food while your child is playing, watching television or walking around.

Summary: Find more tips on getting started with family meals here.

Be a role model. Your child will eat better and be more willing to try new foods if she sees others at the table eating the same foods. Family members, including older brothers and sisters, are important role models for healthy eating.

Summary: Well, sort of. Seeing others enjoying food helps, however, children learn to like new foods at their own pace in a positive, pressure-free eating environment.

Eat at regular times. Offer three meals and two to three snacks at regular times each day. Offer only water between meals and snacks. This will keep your child hydrated and will also make sure that he doesn’t fill up before meal time. This way he will be able to come to the table hungry.

Summary: What they said.

Promote happy meal times. Your child will eat better if she is enjoying mealtime. Children are more likely to have a happy meal time if you don’t pressure them to eat.

Summary: Bingo! Your child will look forward to mealtimes when she knows there will always be something on the table that she can eat. Pressure can seem positive or negative and will always suck the joy out of mealtimes.

Avoid distractions. Meals and snacks should be served away from distractions like the television or computer. Mealtime is for eating and interacting with the family. Do not have toys at the table or on your child’s tray. Leave toys, books, television and music for playtime before or after meals.

Summary: Make mealtimes a priority, a time to focus on family. Distractions also take our attention away from internal hunger and satiety cues.

puzzle - three

Prepare one meal for the family. Offer food in the correct texture and size for your child. Making one meal for the family will also create less stress for the family member making the meal. Remember it is the parent or caregiver’s job to offer the type of food served and it is your child’s decision whether they are going to eat or not. Your child will be more willing to try new foods if he knows he will not get his favourite foods when he refuses dinner.

Confusing: Offer food in the correct size for your child. 

What’s missing: When parent and child cross the lines of their respective responsibilities with feeding, pressure creeps in and the joy goes out of meals. How much to eat is the child’s responsibility and impossible for the parent to predict. Offer small portions and allow your child to go back for seconds and thirds without having to finish or try anything else. Allow all family members choose or decline servings from what’s offered. 

Confusing: Your child will be more willing to try new foods if he knows he will not get his favourite foods when he refuses dinner.

What’s missing: Focus on spending time together, not on what your child is eating. Your child will be more willing to eat if he is confident that he handle the food that has been offered.

Listen to your child. Trust that your child knows when she is hungry and full. It is important to learn how to listen for hunger and fullness signals.

Confusing: Yes.

What’s missing: Perhaps punctuation or some more words. I’m assuming the message is parents should learn to recognize how their child shows hunger through behaviour? Childhood is peppered with periods of rapid growth and there will likely be times when a child needs more calories to fuel a growth spurt. Schedules are hectic and it is incredibly easy to overlap appointments and activities with mealtimes. Trust your child to know when she is hungry and full, but also trust yourself as a parent to know what your child needs, and when the occasional rescue snack is warranted.

Don’t pressure, praise, reward, trick or punish. Children want to be independent in their eating and will not eat well if they feel pressure. Allow your child to decide if or how much he will eat from the foods offered to him. Trust that he will eat if he is hungry.

Summary: Trust only works when it flows in both directions. Your child has to trust that you will feed him, which is not the same as simply offering him food. If you only offer previously rejected, disliked and unfamiliar food and refuse to provide familiar and occasionally favourite food, this is pressure. Let your child pick and choose from the familiar and unfamiliar options you put on the table. Let him eat as much of anything from what you offer, even if he wants second and third helpings of only one or two items. Never use dessert as a bribe to encourage your child to eat less preferred or unfamiliar food.

Try, try again. Continue offering new foods even if your child has said no to them before. Offer these foods on different days, at different meals and in different recipes. It can take at least 10 times for a child to be offered a food before she will try it and like it. Don’t give up!

Summary: It can take a lot longer than 10 tries, but hang in there. Trying a new food does not mean tasting – looking, smelling, touching all count as a try. Allow your child to warm up to unfamiliar food in their own time and at their own pace. Just don’t lose sight of the prize. As it was stated earlier, mealtimes are about connecting and interacting with family, not getting little Johnny to learn to like peas.

Limit meal time. Allow your child a maximum of 30 minutes to eat his meal. This is enough time for a child to finish their meal if he is hungry. After this time put the food away and let your child leave the table. Offer food again at the next scheduled meal or snack time. Extending meal time too long will not make your child more likely to eat and does not create a healthy and happy eating environment.

Confusing: Allow your child a maximum of 30 minutes to eat his meal.

What’s missing: It is not the child’s responsibility to set the mealtime tone, and turning the meal into a Jeopardy! bonus round will not create a happy eating experience, nor a relaxed and enjoyable meal atmosphere. Children can be expected to behave at the table and a child who is misbehaving probably isn’t hungry. Some children are naturally slow at eating. Ignore the clock and listen to your child.

The timer suggestion is not for the child. It’s for the parents to put a limit on how much dawdling and attention-seeking behaviour they will tolerate before their patience is spent. If parents find a timer helps keep their own frustration in check, ending the meal with a ‘ding’ should always be done pleasantly, never as punishment, and with the expectation that snack time is only an hour or two away.

puzzle - five

Children want to be successful with eating. In the parent-child feeding relationship, children are only responsible for how much to eat and being well behaved at the table. The rest, (providing developmentally appropriate food, allowing children the freedom to get acquainted with eating, feeding without pressure) is up to the parents. The most important part of helping children be successful with eating is supporting parents in their efforts to build trust in the feeding relationship with their child. Having the right tools is critically important. More information on putting all the pieces together to build eating competence in children is available free from Ellyn Satter Institute.


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