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)?