The key to raising a healthy eater is understanding the overall goal of feeding. Sure, the most obvious purpose of feeding is to keep your child alive. But is that all? A person who rarely eats vegetables or drinks water may be alive but will almost surely be chronically constipated too.
Ok, so, alive and healthy then. But this begs the question: What does healthy look like? Before you answer that, remember that physical health is only part of that equation. The answer becomes a little more complicated, doesn’t it? We know that children need nutrients like calcium, fiber, and protein for physical health. But what does a well-adjusted relationship with food look like? And by the way – what good will it do if our children eat nutritious foods but grow into adults who won’t?
These are the questions we often fail to ask. By focusing only on the types of foods our children eat, we start to lose sight of the overall goal of feeding – raising a “competent eater“. If you’re struggling with feeding, it may be time to step back and consider what you’re really trying to accomplish. This post is therefore dedicated to establishing the “why”, “what”, and “how” of raising a well-adjusted eater.
grow a Positive Relationship with Food
Anyone who has struggled with their own eating can attest to how significant an impact it can have on your life – every single aspect of it. It’s a feeling of dread when someone invites you over for dinner. It’s letting a swimsuit dominate what you can and can’t eat on vacation. The uncomfortable pang of hunger that keeps you from enjoying essentially anything at all. Being able to adjust to any given environment means being able to find something to eat while there. And the more limited a person’s acceptance of different foods, the less likely that becomes.
There are a variety of reasons a person may keep to a restricted diet – health conditions, a religious commitment, disordered eating, or selective food preferences. But there is evidence that suggests that, regardless of reasoning, dietary restrictions may be associated with increased feelings of loneliness. This seems to be particularly true when eating with others who don’t share the same dietary limitations. Unlike restrictions due to, say communal dietary laws like Judaism, selective eaters are far less likely to find themselves in the company of others who share in the same dietary habits.
All of this makes sense when we stop to consider how social eating really is. Even when sitting down to eat by ourselves, we prefer foods that are familiar. Taste has the power to transport us back to a particular time and place remaining only in a distant and cherished memory. And our food choices are greatly influenced by the people around us. Anywhere you go, food is a major part of almost any social function from funerals to weddings – it’s an unavoidable aspect of life. More than a simple means of keeping us alive, it’s a way to connect and an occasion to enjoy.
Remember Eating Is a Skill
Most consider eating a completely instinctual act. And in fact, there are several aspects of eating that are instinctual. Babies are born with several reflexes that help them to eat without explicitly being taught. Ever heard of the “breast crawl“? Newborns will actually use their stepping reflex to push their way around the chest so that they can find and attach to the nipple!
But what happens next? Babies start solids – and learn to eat like us. Using a spoon isn’t instinctive. Neither is drinking from a cup. Anyone who has seen a baby start to use either would attest to that! The act of feeding yourself involves many skills – some that develop sooner, some that develop later.
Developing an appreciation of a food’s taste takes time. In fact, children may need to be exposed to a food up to 10-15 times before deciding that they like or even want to try it! Too many times I’ve been told by parents that their child simply “doesn’t like” vegetables so they stopped offering them. But how will a child learn to like a food that isn’t offered?
Ideally, children should be comfortable communicating which foods they do and don’t feel comfortable eating. After all, we all want our children to be able to utilize their right to say no when we aren’t around, right? And we want them to be aware of how much food their bodies need. As a very famous experiment by Clara Davis first demonstrated, children are actually astonishing good at gauging how much they need! The goal then, is to encourage this natural skill so that children can grow up to do a good job navigating and managing their own needs.
Know That Method Matters
If children are naturally excellent navigators of their own appetites, they don’t really need us to teach them how much to eat. Though they will lose that skill if it isn’t encouraged. But since they don’t shop, cook, or know much about good nutrition, they do need us to teach them what to eat.
Now, before you get out your dry erase board and start lecturing your preschooler, it’s important to understand that children learn just by watching. Therefore, modeling positive eating behavior is crucial. If mom and dad are barely managing to choke down their own leafy greens, what will the young observer learn? That vegetables are gross, right? Providing a well-balanced meal and enjoying your own food is therefore your responsibility. Gauging their hunger level and choosing among the foods provided is theirs. Sometimes doing a good job with feeding means working through our own eating issues – and that’s ok! But barring a medical issue (like a bowel obstruction), children will do their best with eating when adults trust that they can!
The “Division of Responsibility” model was coined by Ellyn Satter. And she has many wonderfully comprehensive books on the subject! Her book Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense is a great guide to feeding. Though a few things have since changed in the world of nutrition since its last publishing in 2000 (like recommendations for early introduction of top allergens), the Division of Responsibility method continues to be the “gold standard” of feeding.
The reason that the Division of Responsibility works so well is that it fits into an authoritative feeding style. If you’ve ever heard the term “parenting style“, chances are, it was used incorrectly (a personal pet peeve of mine). Most people don’t know that the term actually refers to a psychological theory (Pillar Theory) developed by Diana Baumrind in the 1960s based on observations of children and their parents. She concluded that children raised by parents who implemented an “authoritative” (high warmth within clear and firm boundaries) had the most positive outcomes. Feeding, it turns out, is quite the same.
Children Are Not Little Adults
Maybe the title of this section has got you scratching your head thinking, “if children aren’t little adults, what the heck are they?” The truth is that children both are and aren’t “little adults”. Confused? Allow me to explain. Children are very much like us in that they are humans who need oxygen, food, water, love, respect, and well, you get the picture. So how are they not little adults?
Children are distinctly different from adults both physically and cognitively, and that makes all the difference when it comes to feeding. Physically, children have different nutritional needs at different points in their lifecycle (more on this later!). Cognitively, children, including teens, are less likely to think of the long-term consequences of their actions when making decisions. That means that children aren’t likely contemplating their genetic predisposition to chronic illness when deciding whether or not to have one piece of cake or two (uh, two please!). Nor would we want them to! After all, who really wants to live in a world without cake? Remember, the goal here is to cultivate a positive relationship with food.
Essentially, we want to teach our children to like the foods that we want them to eat. And we want to teach them to enjoy a variety of foods (including dessert) guilt and shame free. How do we do that? By consistently providing well-rounded meals in a loving and judgement-free atmosphere.
the bite-sized take away
Parents: here’s what I don’t want you to take away from this post – “my picky eater is doomed to a life of loneliness and dissatisfaction!” If you’ve read this post and you’re feeling alarmed about your child’s eating or like you’re “doing it all wrong”, please know that that is the exact opposite of what I am hoping to get across here.
As a parent who worries about her own child on a nearly constant basis, I understand. At any given point on any given day, we have a lot to worry about! Food shouldn’t be one of those things. After all, more time spent worrying about feeding means less time enjoying eating together.
So, imagine the type of relationship you want your child to have with food. Now, ask yourself, “Is this the type of relationship that I have with food?” If the answer is no, don’t beat yourself up! Just know that there might be a little bit of work to do. And it will require that you treat yourself love and kindness. It sounds like a lot – I know. But I promise, it’s as simple as loving your food and allowing your child the chance to do the same. Where do you start? At the table, of course!
Maybe you don’t eat together often. Maybe you don’t even have a table! But today, I’m challenging you – no matter what you serve or where you eat (eating on the floor or at the coffee table totally counts as a family meal) – to simply sit together and enjoy a meal. But do be careful – you’ll soon likely find yourself hooked.
Disclaimer: The information on this site is in no way intended to be a substitute for medical advice. It is intended for general informational purposes only. Always seek personalized medical advice and consult your practitioner with questions regarding your or your child’s health.