By Erin MacGregor from Howtoeat.ca
As a parent, one of the greatest sources of anxiety I observe among fellow caregivers is feeding kids.
We worry whether they’re eating enough. We worry if what they’re eating is healthy. We worry that they’re eating too much. We worry about ingredient lists and nutrition labels.
But mostly, we worry that we’re not doing it “right”.
There’s a lot of pressure for parents to get it ‘right’ these days. We’re bombarded with messages around the importance of healthy eating, and our social media feeds are awash with images of perfect families eating perfect meals. What I’ve noticed about this pressure is that it leaves parents feeling like they need to manage something that in reality, doesn’t need much managing at all.
Kids have a natural intuition about food and eating. Once they can start feeding themselves, if left to their own devices, kids will eat the foods they’re regularly exposed to when they’re hungry. And they will stop when they’re full. This built-in intuition around eating only falters when parents or caregivers become overly involved. When we foist our own values and beliefs about food onto them, kids begin to ignore their own cues around hunger and satiety (feeling full). For parents, it’s well-intentioned. We all want the best for our children, so it’s common sense to push our healthy eating agenda. If we teach them how to use a potty, how to count, and how to read, surely we must teach them how to eat, right?
Well, not really.
As parents, we can lead by example. We can set kids up for success by regularly offering a wide variety of healthful foods. We can even set some rules and boundaries around mealtime. But what we can’t do is get kids to eat what we want them to eat.
It turns out there is a lot of sound research to support this. Ellyn Satter, an iconic dietitian and internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding has been studying a method of feeding kids for decades called The Division of Responsibility. Her method has become the gold standard for feeding children and raising happy, adventurous eaters.
Raising kids to be happy eaters involves sharing in the responsibilities of feeding. While kids need structure and guidance around food and eating, they also need to develop a sense of independence in feeding themselves.
Once kids are old enough to feed themselves, parents and kids have different jobs:
● Parents are responsible for what, when, and where
● Children are responsible for if and how much
Let’s break this down a little further. As parents we are responsible for:
● What food is offered. This means offering a balance and variety of nutritious foods.
● When it is offered. Have a set schedule for meal and snack times. Do not offer food or beverages (other than water) in between. By scheduling, kids’ hunger can build between meals and snacks so they’re ready when it’s time.
● Where it is offered. Help kids pay attention to eating by making mealtime in a set location, away from other activities. For meals at home, eat at a table or counter while sitting, away from distractions like toys or TV. While away from home, work toward sitting down and putting aside time to eat.
Now it’s over to your child who is responsible for:
● How much they eat
● Whether they eat at all
A transition to this method of feeding can be tough for parents at first. Letting kids have full control over how much they eat (or whether or not they eat at all) often seems counterintuitive to how many of us we were raised. But the benefit of allowing kids to trust their intuitions and becoming independent in their eating has huge payoffs. Better long-term health outcomes, more adventurous eating habits, and a happier, healthier relationship with food.
So parents, you can relax. Just let the kids eat.
Here’s a recipe the whole family can get behind. Soft gnocchi, a simple homemade tomato sauce and an abundance of cheesy goodness.
Photo courtesy of Howtoeat.ca