03 Jun The Secret to Feeding Your Kiddos
You are a great parent. You care for your children dearly. So you have a lot of questions about their nutrition. You wonder whether they are getting enough protein, calcium, and healthy fats. Sometimes you worry if you are allowing too much sugar or you might feel confused on what the rules around sugar should even be. You want them to eat the foods that support their growth, but you don’t want the battle that may come with that – and you certainly don’t want to set them up for food issues down the line.
This can be a lot to grapple with, especially given the crazy-making amount of nutrition information out there these days. Yet, I’m delighted to share with you there’s an algorithm to all the chaos. Imagine stress free dinners and your child eating more vegetables. Consider what it would be like to not have to worry whether your child is eating the right things, in the right amounts, and whether she will grow into a body that is right for her. There is a parent-child feeding model, based on groundbreaking research by Ellyn Satter, RD, LCSW that is designed to do just those things.
So before we dive into the framework, let’s take a step back and consider for a moment your child when she came into this world. There was no doubt an internal system that informed her when she was hungry (tears!) and there was something within her that told her she was full. She would just stop eating. There were no spreadsheets, or computers, or a wizard behind curtains that told her what to do. Something within her just knew. As you consider the optimal way to feed your child, I invite you to keep in my mind she is already a bit of an expert.
A successful parent-child feeding relationship honors this natural system already at work. She’s like a Sitka spruce tree, pulling in all the right nutrients she needs to sustain a long and healthy life. She knows how to feed herself, picking the correct balance of micro- and macronutrients she needs in that given day and time. As long as her surrounding ecosystem is not interfering with her already-in place nourishing skills, she will pick what she needs and when she needs it, naturally.
To create an environment that allows these processes to thrive, consider the following “roles” for both the parent and child:
Parents are responsible for:
what foods to offer the child
when meals and snacks will be served
where they will be served
Children are responsible for:
how much to eat
whether to eat the foods the parent has provided
It is the parent’s job to choose and prepare the food, provide regular snacks, and try to make mealtime enjoyable and pleasant. In short, the parent is in charge of the feeding process, while the child is in charge of the eating process.
Parents often make the mistake of pushing foods or restricting foods from their child. While well-intentioned, this can cut her off from her natural body cues and force her to rely on thoughts about what she “should” or “should not” be eating. Studies show that such “food rules” are what lead to long-term weight gain and a poor relationship to food.
So how does this framework look? At mealtime, it is your job as the parent to provide structure and organization. You dictate the time of the meal, where it will be, and what you will be having. Try to avoid providing snacks too close to mealtime so your child comes to the table hungry. Resist cooking separate meals for your child and encourage one family meal, with a variety of foods to choose from. Always have at least one food on the table that your child will eat, especially if your child is a picky eater.
Over time, your child will begin to experiment with the more adventurous foods that you have provided. The number one concern at dinnertime for parents is whether their child is eating vegetables. Studies show that the more you pressure your children to eat a certain food, the more they will resist. The best thing you can do is model and eat the vegetables yourself. Have fun while eating. Dunk or dip foods as a way for play and fun. Children like what their parents like, especially if their parents are having genuine fun and enjoyment. Try to make vegetable dishes flavorful, adding butter, melted cheese, and for many kids’ pallets, vinegar is a great “gateway” to enjoyment.
Don’t worry if at first your child doesn’t grab for foods you’d like for them to be eating. The most important thing is modeling and exposing them to these foods. It can take months for them to venture out, so be patient, and remember, they have an inner-expertise that knows exactly how to feed and grow. Nature’s got your back, and theirs too.
McKenzie Zajonc, MS, CN, LMHCA is a Nutritionist in private practice in Fremont, Seattle. She specializes in family nutrition and helping women find ease in their nutritional path. You can find her at InnerNutritionist.com.