I recently taught a class to a room full of moms about toddler eating problems. I heard moms complain about how their children were no longer good eaters. The question of the day was “How do I get my toddler to eat?”
There were also some parents worried that their children were eating too much at mealtime. And with all that you hear about childhood obesity, their concern is understandable.
The way to handle both of these concerns is surprisingly simple. Let me show you why.
The responsibility of feeding a child is a two-way street
Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW coined the term “The Division of Responsibility” and has done a substantial amount of research on childhood eating over the past 40 years. When you apply her theory you’ll find that it solves – and can prevent– many childhood feeding problems.
The idea is that both the parent and child have a responsibility. It’s the parent’s job to decide the “what” and “when” of feeding and the child decides “how much” to eat. Problems usually occur when someone, either parent or child, crosses this division of responsibility
Example 1: Child running the show
Little Charlie insists he gets certain foods at meals so his mom gives in afraid he’ll starve to death. As a result, his diet consists of macaroni and cheese, fries and waffles. The problem? Charlie has taken over his mom’s job of deciding “what” to eat.
If Charlie’s mom were following the Division of Responsibility, she would tell him that even though she takes his requests into consideration, it’s her job to decide what he eats – and he can decide whether or not to eat it. She plans his meals with his food preferences in mind but doesn’t resort to feeding only his favorites.
In her book, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family: Orchestrating and Enjoying the Family Meal, Satter explains that children need ample opportunity and time to learn to like certain foods. At around 18 months of age, many toddlers become skeptical of certain items, like vegetables, but this is just a stage. By continually offering foods your child may not like (without pressuring) you give him the opportunity to learn to like that food. If you take away the food, you take away the opportunity.
Example 2: Parent controlling their child’s food intake
In this example, Charlie is eating very little at meal time and his mom says “That’s all you’re gonna eat?” She even starts to make him eat at least half of his plate before he can watch TV or play with his favorite toy. Another example is Sadie, a girl with a hearty appetite. Her mom purposely limits how much she eats because she’s already 90th percentile for weight. When Sadie asks for more her mom says, “That’s all there is.”
In both scenarios, the parent is crossing the line of responsibility by deciding how much a child eats. Why is this bad? Studies show that children tend to eat less when pressured and more when they feel food is scarce. Additionally, you want your child to maintain their ability to self-regulate intake. This is a gift that most adults would die for, to eat when hungry and stop when full.
My daughter has just started eating very little at breakfast. Do I like it? No! I could make her finish her breakfast before she gets her morning dose of Barney but what would that accomplish? She would probably come to dread eating breakfast because of the negativity of being forced to eat. We’d have a morning showdown with her crying and me saying “No Barney today.” Or I could trust that she’s not hungry and will eat her snack 2-3 hours later. She remains pleasant at breakfast and will probably start eating more in a couple of weeks.
So as parents our job is to provide the “when” and “what” of feeding. And when children are left to do their jobs, they relax a little and are more likely to be cooperative because they feel respected.
When parent and child divide the responsibility of eating in this way, it solves most childhood eating problems. And it sure does make life – and mealtime—a lot more pleasant.
Find out more about why children turn picky at toddlerhood and what you can do about it in Maryann’s book, From Picky to Powerful