Building a healthy feeding relationship through baby-led weaning.

I recently attended a dietician-led discussion about building healthy feeding relationships with children. There was one concept that particularly resonated with me, which is as follows.

The parent-child feeding relationship consists of five responsibilities:

1. When to offer food;
2. Where to offer food;
3. What food(s) to offer;
4. How much to eat; and
5. Whether or not to eat.

The first three are the responsibility of the parent; the last two are the responsibility of the child. Feeding problems arise when parents lose sight of which responsibilities belong to whom. 

It’s simple, yet brilliant.

The dietician went on to explain each of the five responsibilities:

1. When to offer food. Food should be offered at routine, designated meal (and snack) times. Evidently, toddlers do not have the same understanding of the hunger reflex that older children and adults do (I didn’t know this!), so they may use “I’m hungry” as a stalling tactic, or to express another need, such as thirst, sleep or comfort. Conversely, when they are hungry, they may say they are not, especially if they are absorbed in other activities. Children should not be permitted to graze throughout the day.

2. Where to offer food. Food should be offered in an upright seated position, ideally at the family table. Lounger seats are not safe places to feed babies, as the reclining position interferes with the gagging process that helps to prevent choking. Food should not be given in the car seat (dangerous!), stroller, or on the run. It is easiest to cultivate the habit of sitting nicely at the table when the expectation to do so is laid out from the very beginning. Start as you mean to go on.

3. What foods to offer. Children should eat the same foods as the rest of the family, and should not be given special “children’s meals.” There are exceptions to this rule in the early months and/or years, as certain foods (e.g. nuts, grapes, popcorn, etc.) present a choking hazard. Components of the family meal can be prepared in different ways to make them safer or more developmentally appropriate for young children; for example, cooked to a softer texture, broken into small pieces, or mashed with a fork.

4. How much to eat. It is up to the child to decide which of the offered foods he wishes to eat, and how much of each food he will consume. As adults, we have the freedom to decide not to cook or serve a food that we don’t particularly feel like eating, and it is only fair to respect that our children may have different food preferences on different days. It is okay, however, to insist that a child taste (but not eat) every food offered, as only through repeated exposures will children learn to accept new foods. Children need not eat a “balanced diet” at every meal, or even every day. More important is the aggregate of nutrients consumed over the course of a week (or longer).

5. Whether or not to eat. A child should sit at the table for the duration of the meal, and should be offered food, but they should never be forced, coerced or bribed to eat. In the early months of feeding, it is very common for babies to only play with their food, and/or to spit everything out. As children get older, they may decide that they do not wish to eat, and that is okay. A parent can simply refrigerate the child’s meal to have it available should the child decide he is hungry at a later time. It is important not to “reward” refusal to eat by offering the child foods other than those that were served at the meal.

Do you agree or disagree with this philosophy? What techniques or rules have you used to help build a healthy feeding relationship with your child(ren)?


  1. Hi Carli! It’s Sue – I used to work with your mom! (Miss her terribly by the way!)…anyways, just wanted to commend you for noting and sharing this. I have been reading a lot about feeding recently too as I have a 9 month old boy, Jack, who is learning all kinds of new food tricks! I have come across these “rules” as well and sometimes have to verbally remind myself when I temporarily freak out over how much food he has, or has not, eaten in a meal/day….
    Imagine if someone was sitting next to us telling us how much or how little we had to eat each time food was presented – what kind of anxiety that would create.
    I let him choose when to stop – and hope it will generate good food habits all life long; eat when you’re hungry and stop when you’re full. It’s quite simple really – how have we adults made it so difficult??
    All the best – great blog!

    • Hi Sue!

      My mom’s told me all about you and Jack, as I think our boys were born something like a week(?) apart.

      It’s amazing how even when something makes complete sense intellectually, as soon as it becomes personal (i.e. it involves our own kid), all objectivity goes out the window :). I, too, find myself having to resist the urge to try to get Oliver to eat “just a little bit more of x,” and trust that he will eat what he needs to eat when he needs to eat it. I always try to think about what I would suggest to someone else if they were experiencing the same situation, and then follow my own advice!


  2. I agree to set this out as a framework, but I think if we set ourselves up as parents to be slaves to the routine, it makes it really hard to do anything fun on the weekends because the kids are ill-equipped to handle change. So for us, during the week we stick to the routine and on weekends we are more flexible. Also, at the end of the day, I want him to eat something for dinner and not be hungry, so while I don’t cook him something special every night, I do have healthy food on hand that I know he’ll eat. At the beginning of the week I cook up a bunch of chicken and hard boiled eggs and he can eat that if he doesn’t like what I offer for dinner, after he tastes it. I agree with no food in the stroller/ car seat when they are really young, but I do give my toddler food in the car. It means he’ll be ready to go when we get where we’re going, and it’s a good pause where he’ll definitely eat his food and won’t just stop because he’s ready to play again, which is what happens sometimes when he eats at the table. I do agree that kids have food preferences and tastes, and it’s too easy to get wrapped up in the “balanced” meal, when it is an aggregation of nutrition and a long-term healthy relationship with food is the real goal.

    • If you look at the guidelines as just that — guidelines — I think the intent can still be accomplished without becoming a slave to rules or routines. For example, if you are out and about doing fun stuff on the weekend, you can pack a healthy picnic lunch (what foods to offer) and take a break from your activities to serve lunch at an appropriate time (when to offer food), while sitting around a park bench (where to offer food). The idea of the “family table” isn’t necessarily literal. It refers to whatever place everyone sits down together to take a break and enjoy a meal — it could be a table at a restaurant, a blanket on the grass, or a picnic table at the park.

      And remember, there is no best way to do things; there is only best for your family :).

      One thing I cannot agree with, though, is offering food in a car seat. I would be worried about the choking hazard of a sudden stop or car accident, and the increased risk of driver distraction, due to coughing/choking or spillage of food or drink.

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