I discovered Ellyn Satter’s approach to feeding children when I was in the trenches of mealtime struggles with my first daughter who was 3 at that time. Tired of dinnertime battles and frustrated with my unsuccessful attempts to expand her ever-limiting food repertoire, I decided to give the division of responsibility in feeding a try.

I have to warn you that this principle goes somewhat against our primary parental instinct – that is, making sure our child has had enough food at a meal. But after doing a significant amount of research on the topic, devoting to it my graduate school thesis and seeing the difference it makes in my life and in the lives of the families I work with, I can assure you that it is definitely worth it.

Here is a short summary:

Parents provide structure, support, and opportunities for eating. Children choose how much and whether to eat from what the parents provide.

  • The parent is responsible for what, when, where
  • The child is responsible for how much and whether

Parents’ Feeding Jobs:

  • Choose and prepare the food
  • Provide regular meals and snacks
  • Make eating times pleasant
  • Show children what they have to learn about food and mealtime behavior
  • Not let children graze for food or beverages between meal and snack times
  • Let children grow up to get bodies that are right for them

It is important to serve a variety of foods every day. When your child sees different foods being enjoyed by the family, she will eventually become interested in them unless she is pressured to try them. Perhaps the first time you serve spinach your child will not even look at it, next time she might touch it, another time put it on the plate etc. Serving the food from time to time will give your child an opportunity to learn to accept and probably even like it.

Note: it may take years before your child decides to try a new food. So don’t hold your breath!  Also, some kids may have underlying difficulties like sensory issues, gastrointestinal problems or oral motor delays. In this case, they will need more help in these areas, before you will see a significant improvement in eating.

The important job for parents is trusting their child to decide how much and whether to eat. This is the hard part because of our natural tendency to worry about how much they eat I discussed above.  But if parents do their jobs with feeding, children will do their jobs with eating:

  • Children will eat
  • They will eat the amount they need
  • They will learn to eat the food their parents eat
  • They will grow predictably
  • They will learn to behave well at the table
“Can I sprinkle some kale chips on my miso soup?”- my daughter asked me at dinner last night.
“Sure”- said I, trying hard to hide a triumphant grin.
After about 3 months of serving kale chips from time to time, enjoying them myself and not pressuring her to try them, I could see another proof that the division of responsibility works!

More information: www.ellynsatter.com

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