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Changing the way we feed our families

October 03, 2012

I don’t know about you, but mealtimes have become almost nightmarish around our house lately.

When we sit down for our evening meal as a family, my two-year-old ends up spending the meal either going back and forth to time-out or to the bathroom to try and avoid mealtime altogether. Each night as I prepare to put dinner on the table, she complains in agony, “I want a good dinner! Gooood dinnnnerrr!” Apparently, my best efforts at providing healthy, nutritious meals for my family do not meet the standards of her (un)sophisticated palate.

It has become a tug-of-war of good intentions versus toddler independence, and guess who’s winning? Nobody.

The misery of mealtime has prompted me to reconsider how I’ve chosen to feed my family. Am I doing it right? I thought I was, but maybe I’m confused. What am I doing wrong?

What should I do? The opposite of what I thought.

Want to know what I’ve figured out? It’s opposite day. Every day. When it comes to feeding kids, to get the long-term outcome you want, you do exactly the opposite of what you think you should do.

I may be oversimplifying it a bit, but that’s the basic idea I’ve gleaned from the teachings of Ellyn Satter, an internationally recognized authority on the topic of feeding children.

As a conscientious parent, I feel that it is my duty to make sure my child eats a healthy meal at every mealtime. My goal is to get her to eat (and love!) fruits and vegetables and whole grains while forever abstaining from the evils of chicken nuggets, cheeseburgers, and french fries. Most of us challenged with that ideal then assume that the answer is to force (or at least pressure, coax or bribe) your child to do what is good for them.

How many times have you said something like this:

  • “You need to eat three more bites of carrots.”
  • “No, you can’t have anymore pasta until you’ve eaten your vegetables.”
  • “If you don’t finish your dinner, you can’t go outside and play.”
It sounds like good parenting, doesn’t it? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do to ensure that they get all of the vital nutrients their growing bodies need?

Learning the division of responsibility

Satter pioneered the idea of a “division of responsibility” in feeding children. Parents have certain responsibilities in the feeding process, and children have certain responsibilities. When those lines get crossed, that is where the long-term problems with food begin. Here’s the basic idea:

Parents decide the what, when, and where of feeding. Children decide whether and how much to eat.

Isn’t that completely opposite of what we thought we were supposed to do? Satter explains that by pressuring children to eat, we are numbing them to their internal sensations of hunger and satiety, which can push them to the extremes of overeating or undereating later in life. Children don’t learn to eat healthy food and choose to eat it later on as a result of being pressured to do so. They learn to choose it when healthy eating has been modeled for them, but not forced upon them.

Along with this division of responsibility, Satter advocates:

Family mealtime. Consistently providing a meal together helps both adults and children learn to eat a variety of foods. We learn to come to the table hungry and to eat until we get enough. This rhythm teaches us to enjoy food when it is time to eat and forget about it between times. We are the ultimate model for our children’s behavior, and mealtime provides the environment for our children to learn from us.

Family friendly feeding. Consider the likes and dislikes of family members, but don’t try to please everyone at all times. Offer four or five items in each meal for variety, including something from each food group. Offer at least one thing for each person to enjoy, and let them choose what they will eat. If they choose to eat only bread or only meat, that’s alright. Remember, the child chooses whether and how much to eat.

Sit-down, scheduled snacks. Plan snack times as mini-meals. Provide two or three foods that will help sustain your child until the next mealtime. Don’t allow “grazing” in between meal and snack times. Be sure to schedule snacks at the appropriate times to allow children to come to meals hungry but not overly hungry.

Neutral exposure of new foods. Children and adults alike often have to be exposed to a new food anywhere from five to 20 times before they learn to like it, but most cooks give up offering the food after three failed attempts. Keep putting those unfamiliar foods on the table; even looking at the food, smelling it, watching others eat it is progress for a child.

 No forbidden foods. High fat, high sugar foods are certainly detrimental if children are given unlimited access, but research also shows that severely restricting these items makes a child desire them more. Offer these foods in moderation, but don’t exclude them altogether.

 Absolutely no pressure. Any pressure placed on a child to eat is guaranteed to backfire (remember, it’s opposite day). Pressure may be positive such as rewards or praise for eating certain foods, or it may may be negative such as punishing or threatening for certain eating behaviors. Avoid both.

For me, these ideas have been revolutionary in the way I think about feeding my family. I’m still trying to digest (pun intended) all of it and figure out how to incorporate this wisdom into our family’s mealtimes.

What about you? Do you agree or disagree with these principles of feeding your family? What has worked in your household?

For more of Ellyn Satter’s advice on feeding, visit