You’re at wit’s end. Your daughter’s nutritional habits are atrocious. She refuses just about every kind of “good” food (if it’s green, she doesn’t touch it), insists on the same old fat-loaded standbys (hot dog and mac ‘n’ cheese again?), loads up on cookies at snacktime and then wants to watch TV during dinner.
Last year, her eating began affecting her weight and now it’s impacting her health. You’re worried and frustrated, tired of playing the food police and equally tired of giving in to avoid the fight. Your relationship with your child is under serious strain around nearly every mealtime lately, and you just don’t know what to do.
Dietician and psychotherapist Ellyn Satter hears stories like this one almost daily. The author of How to Get Your Kid to Eat, But Not Too Much and other family eating guides, Satter specializes in resolving intractable family eating struggles. Based on her clinical experience and years researching all sorts of eating challenges between parents and children, she has developed what she says is a proven method for avoiding exhausting food fights while protecting your child’s health.
Satter’s approach is based primarily on a division of responsibility. It assigns parents and children very clear, specific roles when it comes to meals and snacks, thus eliminating bargaining, pleading and other mealtime conflicts.
Satter suggests the parent’s job is to:
- Buy and choose healthy food
- Prepare a wide variety of healthy foods
- Offer regular meals
- Present food in a positive and supportive fashion
Meanwhile, it’s the child’s job to:
- Determine how much to eat of the various foods served
- Decide whether or not to eat
No More Excuses
At first glance, it may seem that Satter is giving kids an awful lot of rope here – potentially enough to hang both themselves and their well-meaning parents. On closer examination, though, the kids’ role can work out okay (and it will, Satter promises) as long as the parents are doing their job responsibly.
Basically, if parents buy and serve only healthy foods, serve a wide enough array of these foods, make them tasty and serve them at regular intervals, kids (even picky eaters) can’t go too wrong. They may turn their nose up at this or that dish, but eventually they’ll eat something, and given the established food boundaries, that thing will be reasonably good for them.
Of course, Satter’s approach also asks a lot of parents, many of whom will probably need to totally rethink the way they cook and serve much of the food their family eats. After all, if they’re going to serve all this healthy fare (primarily selections that force their kids to make healthy choices) they’ll have to shop more often, cook more often, prepare more kinds of foods, and keep a more organized home schedule.
They may also have to give up – or at least cut down on – some of their own guilty pleasures (like the goodies they’ve been getting “just for the kids”). Most challenging of all, they’ll have to actually convince the whole family to sit down to eat – maybe more than once a day!
At core, Satter’s approach calls for a familywide eating overhaul, and that, says Satter, is exactly the point. Very often, she notes, it is adults’ reliance on processed and convenience foods, our difficulty maintaining a regular shopping and cooking schedule, our tendency to sling hash at all hours and to eat it on the go or while watching TV that sets our kids up for trouble in the first place.
Only by insisting on a “new deal” around food in our own minds and homes, she says, can we have any hope of resolving food issues with our kids.
Setting a Good Example
Presenting better food choices sounds like a good idea to most parents. But what if you’ve got a kid who simply won’t eat? Or a kid who doesn’t know when to stop? Follow the program anyway, says Satter. You may be surprised to see these problems resolve themselves in due course.
When kids can find genuine pleasure in the eating experience, Satter asserts – specifically an experience grounded in pleasant, predictable, well-rounded mealtimes and clear boundaries – they’ll get reacquainted with the innate self-regulation that lets them eat what they should and stop when they’re full.
Kids, Satter insists, need to regain trust in their own bodies and instincts – instincts that are warped by media influences and junk-food addictions, but also by detrimental parental practices like overeating, undereating or using food for purposes of control and reward.
When it comes to evaluating a kid’s eating imbalances, Satter suggests, parents must first look closely at their own eating attitudes, because these are the most powerful messages a child receives. To what extent might one or both parents in the household overeat, undereat or eat erratically? What attitudes and behaviors are being modeled most powerfully to the kids?
Kids learn from their parents early on how to use eating to relieve stress or lack of connection, or to communicate displeasure. When parents set a bad example, whether by what they eat or how and when they eat it, kids naturally follow their parents’ negative patterns.
All too often, Satter says, adults are so fixated on viewing foods in strictly dietary ways that it drains all the pleasure out of eating. If Suzy sees Mom suffering through steamed cod and then guiltily bingeing on cheesecake, she learns a potent lesson about what foods are most desirable. If Johnny watches parents yo-yo miserably through different diets, the message is clear that food is something to be constantly controlled and feared, not enjoyed.
Reclaim Your Role
In order to get out of their “helpless victim” and “angry cop” roles, Satter says, parents need to reclaim their rightful roles as responsible supporter and provider. They can do that by taking firm charge of the “what, when, and where” of eating and then making every effort to ensure that the mealtimes themselves are fun, pleasant, relaxing experiences.
When parents establish clear boundaries for what their children are allowed to eat (their preferences from the array of healthy choices served), when they can eat (at established, well-spaced meal and snack times, or not at all) and in what type of setting (at a pleasant table with the rest of the family, not in front of the television), there are far fewer potential battles to make mealtimes miserable.
Again, though, the challenge implicit in all these boundaries is that parents have to make sure that certain conditions are met. It is up to the parent to keep the house stocked with healthy foods, to put nourishing, well-rounded meals on the table at roughly the same times every day and present these mealtimes as a positive family experience. When mealtimes become enjoyable family gatherings, kids are less likely to become negatively focused on the food and more able to enjoy the time spent together.
Parents also have to weather the storm of watching kids play out their role. In Satter’s approach, they get to pick how much to eat (which sometimes means a little and other times a lot). Young children in particular have appetites that may vary from day to day and can be tough to watch and trust. But children are naturally excellent regulators, says Satter, and when given the chance, they will know when they are full or satisfied.
If they don’t want to eat the meal placed before them, that’s fine, but the alternative is waiting until the next mealtime. When kids realize that they may only choose from what they’re given, they’ll learn to stop asking for their favorite unhealthy standbys.
Offer them variety in their meals and do everything you can to make healthy foods interesting and tasty (don’t try to force-feed nothing but vegetables) and soon enough, your child will learn to enjoy the meals you provide.
No More Food Fights
Most children’s’ eating struggles are caused by a lack of structure, says Satter. When kids “graze” at all hours on foods of their choice, munching away while absorbed in other activities such as computer games, chances are high they’ll be eating an unhealthy range and amount of food. The solution is simple: three meals and, for younger kids, two healthy snacks (think fruit and veggies), provided at consistent times of the day. According to Satter, requests for food at other times should be politely refused (although water should be offered all day). When kids know they can count on a nutritious snack or family meal, they’ll not only build up some genuine appetite, they’ll look forward to shared mealtimes.
Satter also believes that it is very important to establish clear mealtime boundaries. Serve food at the table instead of letting the child wander off with it, Satter suggests, and as often as possible, join your child at the table. Eating at one location, with no distractions other than good conversation, encourages diners to sit still and savor the food as well as the social experience.
Even when a child says she isn’t hungry, ask that she come to join the others. By doing so, you are sending the message that mealtimes are important family events. Satter suggests thanking your child for participating in these family meals. Chances are, she’ll end up eating something, too. Either way, she’ll be part of a family-meal ritual that experts say is a key component to increasing family closeness.
Remaining positive, loving and upbeat throughout all these changes is key, says Satter. When initiating your family’s new healthy, structured mealtimes, it is important to present them as a chance for your family to get healthy together, not as a diet aimed at anyone in particular.
If your child’s negative eating habits have affected her weight, says Satter, this new meal plan can offer an added bonus: Children’s weight will often normalize as the simple result of structured eating times and a consistent refusal to hand out foods in between.
Satter also suggests encouraging all family members to eat more slowly. Eating slowly allows diners to appreciate subtle flavors and to notice when their hunger has been fulfilled. In your commentary about food, focus on food’s quality, not quantity. Also, while it’s important not to make any food off-limits, it’s beneficial to keep tempting appetite cues (like cookie jars or bags of packaged snacks) out of sight.
Finally, don’t abandon all treats and high-calorie foods be-cause one or more family members are overweight – just cycle them in less frequently. When you do serve your family such foods, encourage everyone to sit back, savor every mouthful, and enjoy being together! Keep in mind that Satter’s guidelines have two goals: to help you improve your children’s nutrition and health, and improve the food-related relationship you have with your children. By providing regularly scheduled meals and snacks, limiting uncontrolled snacking and drinking sugary beverages, offering a variety of nutritious foods, and setting clear boundaries when it comes to mealtimes, your meals can go from food fights to pleasant family experiences.
Set a sterling example and encourage your children to follow your lead. They’ll thank you for it when they’re healthy, fit adults teaching children of their own!