Say Goodbye to Food Fights: Trusting Children to Eat
By Sarah Longwell
The word nurture is from the Latin root nutrire, which has two meanings: to feed and to cherish. I have always found it deeply poetic that these words and their actions are so deeply intertwined. If I have learned anything from my work as a lactation consultant, it is that feeding our children is a really big deal, and it goes much deeper than food. When a baby is born, all the responsibilities of the parents essentially boil down to keeping the baby alive and showing the baby love… feeding pretty much covers almost all the bases for a newborn. In my professional life, I’m usually working with families when the feeding piece of the equation isn’t going well, and I’ve seen firsthand how painful it can be for parents when nourishing a child is challenging.
As children grow, our instinctual drive to nurture them through feeding also has to grow and evolve. Beyond making sure our children survive, we want them to thrive. For many adults, the only way we feel confident that our kids are eating well is if we monitor, control, limit, and bribe them into a narrow ideal of optimal nutrition and eating behaviors. It might be helpful to take a step back and think about what kind of relationship we want our children to have with food in the future. Do we want them to approach their meals adventurously, enjoying a wide variety of foods in the amounts their bodies need, getting both fuel and fun out of what they eat? Or do we want them to memorize and follow a rigid set of rules, measure calories and macronutrients, denying themselves pleasures of food beyond specific amounts necessary for subsistence? No one would deliberately teach their child to start a cycle of deprivation and overeating, yo-yo dieting, or otherwise disordered eating, but this is where many Americans end up. Do we think it’s very likely that kids will grow to have healthy and fulfilling relationships with food just through repetition and enforcement of eating rules provided by their parents? Just like many of the skills that we practice as children, eating is a task that can be fraught for us as adults if we aren’t given the freedom to learn to do it intuitively and competently in our youth. (If you’ve already started to explore the idea of autonomy and intrinsic motivation in learning and education, then expanding those principles to food and eating will make a lot of sense!)
I’ve reassured hundreds of nursing parents over the years that their babies with feeding problems aren’t lazy or manipulative; when they have the ability to feed proficiently, all babies and children do it without hesitation. Ellyn Satter, a dietitian, family therapist, and author, asserts that trust is critical in developing kids’ eating skills: “Your child wants to eat and he wants to grow up to eat the food you eat. Beyond doing your part with structured, sit-down family meals and snacks, you don’t have to do anything to get it to happen. Just be there and enjoy your own food. Keep in mind that grownup food is all new to your child, and he has to learn. For him, it is like any other skill such as reading or bike riding – he learns it bit by bit, at his own pace, because he wants to, not because it is your idea.”
In her first book, Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense (1983), Satter lays out principles and practical application of what she calls the Division of Responsibility in feeding. Essentially, the dynamic and task of feeding kids is the same whether they are struggling or not: everyone needs to do specific jobs, and trust the other person to do their own jobs. With a baby, the adult’s main responsibility is to decide what the baby will be fed and from what type of container, and the baby decides when, where, and how much to eat. As the child begins to eat solid foods, the adult still has responsibility for deciding what foods to offer, and now also when and where mealtimes will happen. The child still is responsible for deciding what and how much to eat of the foods offered, and really whether to eat at all. Trusting children with their eating responsibilities allows them to learn over time, free of pressure, to pay attention to their own body cues and experiment with different foods and ways of eating. As they grow into adolescents and adults, they gradually take on more and more responsibilities with regard to their own eating.
Satter’s research strongly suggests that requiring kids to eat certain amounts or types of foods teaches them to suppress and ignore their internal hunger and satiety cues, setting them up for problematic eating habits in the future: “Following the division of responsibility in feeding preserves your child’s sensitivity to her internal sensations of hunger, appetite, and satiety. That sets her up for a lifetime of eating as much as she needs and weighing what is right for her. All children know how much to eat: the large child and the small child, the big eater and the small eater. Even children who love to eat get filled up. Trust your child to eat the amount that is right for her. Trying to get her to eat less or more will backfire and create the very problem you are trying to prevent.”
Satter’s techniques have really opened up my previously “picky” eaters to trying and enjoying new things over time. However, as soon as I started focusing on reducing pressure and increasing joy at mealtimes at home, I started noticing a lot of pressure around foods outside our home. Messages about “healthy” and “junk” foods abound everywhere in our culture, and moralizing judgment around body types and food choices can really confuse kids who are trying to learn how to eat for their own individual bodies and tastes. To be honest, these messages can be confusing for adults, too. When my kids were attending public school, they’d often report to me that a teacher or other student had commented on what was in their lunch or pressured them to eat in a certain way (ie, protein first). This was sometimes really upsetting to them, and more than once resulted in a previously enjoyed food being moved to the “no way” category, further restricting the foods that they were willing to eat. I was lucky to find this lunchbox note template online, and put a laminated copy in their lunches every day. Armed with this evidence of my trust in their eating abilities, my kids were able to start enjoying meals at school, even when some people around them tried to pressure them about their eating.
If you’re interested in making a few changes at home to encourage trust around food and eating, you might be wondering where to start. Here are a few ideas that worked for my family:
Serve meals family-style. Instead of providing your child with a plate pre-filled with foods you have selected, put the meal in serving dishes in the center of the table. Allow your child to choose the foods they want to eat and arrange them on their own plate, providing help with serving utensils as appropriate for their age. Think about serving dessert this way with the main meal, rather than using it as a reward to control how your child eats. (The first couple times I did this, my kids started with dessert but it didn’t change the overall amount of food they ate. Now when dessert is available, they usually eat a bite here and there throughout the meal, choosing their next bite based on their enjoyment rather than trying to “save room” for dessert.)
Keep it simple. You can acknowledge that your child has preferences without catering to their every whim. Of the variety of dishes prepared and served at each meal or snack, think about providing a couple choices you know your child will eat as well as some that you enjoy, even if your kid is not sure about them. At the end of the meal, if everyone is relaxed and satisfied, then you did your job! If not, you’ll likely have another chance to try again in a few hours.
Keep mealtimes positive. Establish a pretty predictable routine of meals and snacks that your child can count on throughout the day. Of course you want to be sure your child eats enough to make it comfortably to the next opportunity for food, but they also need chances to learn how to do this on their own. Remember, they have a better sense than you do about what hunger and fullness feels like in their own body. So, as difficult as it might be, keep your comments, judgment, prodding, and preferences to yourself. Just focus on helping your child feel relaxed and supported at mealtimes so they can have a better chance of sensing when they are full and when they can be brave enough to try something new.
Make amends. If you have previously been engaged in a food-focused power struggle with your child and you’re ready to change to a trust model, consider starting with an apology: “I used to think it was my job to control your eating, but I now see that just stressed us both out. I’m sorry and I’d like to try a different way. What do you think about this idea?” They might test you at first; trust them anyway! Depending on your child’s age and readiness, this may be a good opportunity to reconnect and work together on family table rules that everyone can agree on. In our family, the mealtime agreements that brought my extremely picky eaters to the table are:
You don’t have to eat anything: everyone has autonomy over their own body
Don’t yuck my yum: everyone likes different things and that’s normal
Try to try: life is easier when we can enjoy a wider variety of foods, so everyone agrees to be as open as possible to the choices that are available
At the end of the day, we all want our kids to grow into healthy adults. Parents have been bombarded with messages for decades about managing and controlling what kids eat to optimize their nutrition and avoid health concerns such as obesity. It’s important to remember that a big part of being a healthy human is in our heads: having a positive psychological relationship with our bodies allows us (and our kids) to make intuitive choices about what and how to eat. This means appreciating what our bodies do and entitling ourselves to food and activity that we enjoy based on the signals our body gives us. We can embody both the feeding and the cherishing when nurturing children of all ages if we respect and trust them to know themselves and lead the way to becoming competent eaters for their entire lifetime. We can all take a note from Julia Child, who famously said, “People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Resources for additional learning:
Ellyn Satter Institute: www.ellynsatterinstitute.org
Research, articles, practical guidance for feeding children of all ages, links to books.
Dr. Katja Rowell: http://thefeedingdoctor.com/
Blog and articles, links to books, telehealth appointments for specific feeding issues.
Mealtime Hostage: https://mealtimehostage.com/
Mealtime Hostage Facebook Peer Support Group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/MealtimeHostage/
Blog and articles, interactive conversations between adults working on various feeding issues with children they care for.
Sarah Longwell lives in Portland, Oregon, where she works as a lactation consultant. In addition to helping people feed their babies, Sarah is dedicated to supporting families to question the ways cultural influences and their own experiences impact their parenting choices. Her two children have been enthusiastically making mistakes and following their instincts at Village Free School since 2013.