Feeding Children – The balance of responsibility

feedingchildrenI often am approached by parents wanting information on best feeding practices for their children.  Sometimes parents complain they battle with “fussy eaters”, sometimes it is that their “toddler is too busy to eat”, sometimes it is that their children are constantly nagging for junk food, or “won’t eat anything healthy”.

On the one hand I encourage parents to keep the peace in the home and resist the urge to try to control their children, especially with regards to eating.  Food wars, almost always will cause problem eaters down the track.  At the same time, parents are the nutritional gatekeepers, and so I do encourage them to take advantage of their ability to influence their children’s eating habits.  They can do this in several ways:

  1. They can make sure there is delicious healthy food available.
  2. They can be a good role model, choose, prepare and eat healthy food in satisfying ways.
  3. They can watch their dialogue around food, eating, and body image.
  4. They can invite their children to take part in meal decisions or meal preparation.
  5. They can crowd out or minimize the availability of junk food in the house.
  6. They can set norms, boundaries and expectations around eating in the home.
  7. They can create an environment for best eating practice.

At every stage of childhood, parents have responsibilities with feeding while children have responsibilities with eating.  As the child gets older, their responsibilities increase. So be aware that you will have different degrees of influence and responsibility at different ages.  That is why being a role model, and a facilitator and leader is a better strategy than trying to control everything, or nothing.

Here’s what I mean:  In the case of the infant: the parent is responsible for what the infant eats and how they eat it.  A baby has no ability to control that, they can cry, they can refuse to eat, but the parent will decide whether the baby is offered breast or bottle, if bottle, which formula, the parent will decide when to wean, and the parent will decide what to wean with.  (Once the preferred infant food is decided by the parent, the infant is only in charge of how much they consume.

As a child starts eating more solid foods they become accountable for not only how much they eat but also whether they eat.  Usually the older they get, the more they assert their will and their preferences, but they still can’t really “help themselves” or control “what their choices are”.  Children choose how much they eat and whether they eat.

If parents successfully take on responsibility for their part of the feeding (e.g. choosing food, preparing food, being good role models around food and mealtime), children will learn how to eat, how to determine satiety and how to eat a variety of different foods, all of which lead to competent eating (1). But in order to achieve this, parents must give their child some responsibility of their own. This is crucial in teaching children good eating habits.

Here is one example highlighting why it is important they are given some of the responsibility.  I have watched many well intentioned parents insist their children don’t leave the table until they finish everything on their plate (my mother included).  While the parent has the best interests of the child at heart (or perhaps they don’t like to waste food), unfortunately this rule overrides the child’s natural abilities to judge “satiety” and learn when they have had enough and practice the act of “stopping eating”.

Under three, children will stop eating based on their own internal cues rather than being influenced by serving size or how much food is on their plate; after five however, a child will typically be much more influenced by serving size, and eat more or less dependent on external rather than internal cues.  So I would encourage you to give your child the opportunity to practice this skill, if they have had enough, let them stop.

In the same breath, I am a mum, and I “get” that children might “play up”, get distracted, have preferences and so it is necessary to consider some practical guidelines around eating, and certainly important to manage expectations and boundaries.

Here are some ideas:

Encourage them to sit down and eat their food at the table (not on the run or in front of the TV), research shows this facilitates mindful eating, and furthermore research shows lower incidence in teenage depression of families who share at least one meal a day at the dinner table.

You might set an expectation that they eat vegetables every day, but you encourage them to choose any two types of vegetables from the options available for their plate each night (they can choose from what is available e.g. “Which two would you like, you can have pumpkin, raw carrot sticks, cucumber, avocado, broccoli or peas?)  By doing this you work within their preferences but you set the expectation and habit of including vegetables and healthy food as part of the meal.

You might make an effort to both include new things for them to try, and include old familiar favorites they like.

Remember parents are the nutritional gate keepers, you do most of the food shopping and preparation, therefore you need to make sure there are delicious and nutritious options available for them to choose from.  (If you need some support with healthy meal preparation and catering remember Healthy Meals To Your Door does healthy family dinners!)

As we know, educating children on good eating behaviours and allowing them to develop their own positive attitudes toward food is greatly beneficial for when the child steps into adulthood. Their habits and values will carry with them throughout their life.

For more information or support in understanding or healing your relationship with food visit www.sizefantastic.com.au

  1. http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/dor/divisionofresponsibilityinfeeding.php