I get ready to interview one of my heroes, Ellyn Satter, internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding and author of several books including Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense and Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming. I wanted to find out what she thought the biggest feeding mistake parents make. So once we get talking, that is my first question.
“Not knowing how important they [parents] are,” she answers. “Children have the drive to grow up to be just like their parents.”
I knew that parents were important but never considered us the “most” important factor. What we talked about next made sense.
The Importance of Family Meals
Satter doesn’t push parents to eat or prepare ultra-healthy meals. Instead, she emphasizes family dinners as the holy grail of raising good eaters. “There’s too much guilt and anxiety with the virtue of meals,” she says. “Parents get caught up in the what of feeding when they really need to pay attention to the how.”
Satter asks busy parents to make only one change at first: eat together as a family. So whether they’re eating fast food or frozen meals, all they need to do initially is gather at the table. On her website, she has a step-by-step guide for serving family-style meals. And she makes the focus pleasure, not nutrition.
So her first piece of advice: start with the foods your family enjoys and build on from there. This doesn’t mean pleasure and nutrition can’t coexist, they definitely can. But Satter points out that if the meals you prepare aren’t rewarding, they won’t seem worth the effort.
Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables
In addition to being an internationally recognized feeding expert, Satter is also a mom of three (now grown) kids. When her daughter was little she wouldn’t touch a vegetable but Satter took it in stride. When she brought the topic up with other moms she found them in hysterics about their non-vegetable-eating kids.
“Don’t let vegetables be the deal breaker,” Satter says, leading to her second piece of advice for families. “Once family meals become a habit, naturally find ways to add more variety to meals, including vegetables.”
Satter says the best way to get kids to eat vegetables or any food for that matter is for parents to eat it and enjoy it themselves. Of course, she talks about the division of responsibility – parents decide the what, when and where of feeding and children decide the whether and how much of eating. She also explains the importance of “neutral,” repeated food exposure. The bottom line: kids do best when exposed to a variety of foods with absolutely no pressure to eat.
When Satter’s daughter hit early adolescence she took up a new hobby: devouring vegetables. She noticed everyone else in her family enjoying them and realized she was missing out. She is an avid-vegetable eater today not because her parents tricked her into eating greens, but because she got to the point where she wanted to eat them.
How to Handle Dessert
The next question I have for Satter is about sweet foods: how often should parents serve dessert? She says frequency isn’t as important as how it is served. Too often, she explains, dessert is the unspoken reward that kids’ can fixate on at mealtime.
To solve this age-old dessert problem, Satter advises parents to serve a single serving of dessert with the meal. “Some kids will save it, others will eat it first and some will eat it right along with the other food,” she says. She points out that this is the one time she deviates from the division of responsibility because she advises parents to only allow their kids a single serving of dessert.
“To avoid scarcity with sweet foods,” she adds, “Make sure there’s another time (snack time for example) when they can eat all they want of the item.”
Who eats dessert with dinner? Isn’t that crazy?
Let’s think about it. What this feeding strategy shows children is that sweet foods, already palatable and easy to like, are not such a big deal. They are just part of the meal like vegetables, grains, and protein.
Make Eating Well a “Want” Versus a “Should”
If you think about the nature of nutrition and behavior you can see how her approach makes perfect sense. We live in a culture where the “shoulds” of eating are all around us. Eat more fruits and vegetables. Watch sugar. And make sure you skip the tasty dessert at after dinner.
Yet despite all of this scolding, recent studies show only about 3 percent of Americans lead a healthy lifestyle. Let’s face it, it’s human nature to rebel against what you should be doing (kind of like cleaning out the sock drawer). If parents can learn to feed in a positive way, their children will grow into adults who eat nutritious foods not because they feel obligated, but because they enjoy eating them.
“The data is clear – pressure children to eat, and they’ll lose interest in food; restrict their access to palatable foods and they’ll become preoccupied with them,” Satter explains. “Just provide a variety of foods with structure, eat with your kids, and trust that they know exactly how much to eat.”
The Biggest Feeding Mistake
Parents can fixate on a child’s eating habits when they might be better off evaluating their own. Because often we project on our kids or own anxieties about food. For instance, restricting a child may be more about not trusting ourselves around sweets.
What stuck with me is what Ellyn Satter said at the beginning of the interview: “Children have the drive to grow up to be just like their parents.” Not knowing and acting on that is the biggest feeding mistake parents make.