Raising a Competence Eater
Children are born intuitive eaters meaning they have the innate ability to listen to their hunger and fullness. Think of when a baby turns their face away when the bottle or breast is offered, they are telling you, the caregiver, that they are not hungry. Our bodies respond to internal cues and will send signals telling us what we need. When the right structure/environment is set up, children can continue to be intuitive eaters. Instead of having to unlearn diet rules and food restrictions later in life, children can be relaxed in what they eat and give them permission to eat what they want.
“Eating Competence is being positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of enjoyable food. Even though they don’t worry about what and how much to eat, competent eaters do better nutritionally, are more active, sleep better, and have better lab tests.” (Satter, 2019). A competent eater is someone who eats intuitively. Intuitive eating (IE) is made up of 10 principes. One of the principles that this post will touch on is ‘Make Peace with Food.’ We will be talking about intuitive eating in more detail in future posts.
What stands out to me as key to raising a competent eater is structure at meals and snacks. Sitting down with your child to eat three meals and snacks you offer to them. Consider your role as a parent and your child’s role which is what the Division of Responsibility (DOR) in Feeding framework outlines. This was designed by Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and therapist and DOR falls under the Satter Feeding Dynamics model. The parents’ job is to decide where you are going to eat, when you are going to eat, what food you are eating (where/when/what) The children’s job is to decide how much and whether to eat the foods offered by the parent. (How much/whether).
Body autonomy is an important aspect which helps your child feel safe and comfortable. Allowing your child to say no to a food they don’t want to eat extends to other pressures they will face.
As shown by research, external cues such as praising, pressuring, bribing, threats, distraction, shame or guilt interferes with your child’s innate ability to feed themself. Your child will learn to eat for the wrong reasons, to please you or avoid conflict. This may be something you were taught and our society teaches us. Using the DOR model as guidance and meeting with a Registered Dietitian or feeding specialist if you need one-on-one support.
Lean into your kids. Ask them if they feel pressured to eat or are worried.
A question to ask yourself as the parent or guardian: Are you adding pressure or adding support?
If you want to hear from real-life dietitians who implement competent eating and family feeding tips, click here to listen.
Restrictive eating- If sugary cereal, juice or sugar is off limits in your house, they will get it from somewhere else like a friend’s house or at school and not tell you. They may eat a lot of sugar or cereal because they know at home they aren’t allowed to eat it. So, they may not be hungry or really crave it, but due to it being forbidden at home, they feel they will never get it again and binge on it. Finding a middle ground where they have access to candy and sometimes eat too much or too little so it’s not elevated. Restriction of food will cause your child to want it more. Think about it for yourself – have you gone on a diet and you can’t have carbs or high-fat foods, you may have noticed you want it more.
In Rowell and McGlothlin’s book on Extreme Picky Eating, they discuss the pressure paradox. Pressuring your child to eat can cause them to have increasing anxiety, decrease in appetite, liking food less, and depending on you for every bite.
Asking them to take a “no thank you bite” or two more bites to get dessert may work in the short-term but long-term backfires. It can make the child become a pickier eater and put even more stress at mealtimes. Praising is also pressure – excitement from you or using a sticker chart when they eat a food puts pressure on your child. They may feel bad if they don’t want to eat the food again. Children are concrete thinkers and until they hit adolescence they do not think abstractly.
Tip: Don’t pressure them to eat everything on their plate. Offer a preferred food along with a new food.
Consider how you talk about food around your children. Do you talk about mommy being bad having this brownie or this is her cheat meal. An experiment to try is offering dessert with mealtime multiple times. See how they react and how the order of what is eaten may change.
Talk about food in a neutral way so one food is not more elevated and more powerful. I want to point out that desserts like ice cream or higher-fat foods like bacon or chips do taste better than say kale. We can acknowledge that and share with our kids that treats can be part of our day but they may not always get a treat when they ask. To explain this further, if they ask for ice cream at breakfast or they already had lots of candy that day, you can remind them of this in a gentle way and enforce the boundaries. “ We will save this for later or tomorrow since we already had enough today. Other days, you can try letting them have more than enough – let’s say they are playing with their cousins or it’s a holiday. This process allows them to trust their body.
The goal as parents is to create a safe environment where your kids flourish with their growth, feel nourished, eat food they enjoy, and trust their body.
Helping Your Child with Extreme Picky Eating by Katja Rowell and Jenny McGlothlin*
Your Child’s Weight Helping Without Harming by Ellyn Satter*
*Kelly Goodson is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program and the books listed above are affiliate links. Thank you for supporting my efforts to promote a positive feeding environment.