Helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food (and what exactly that means)

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When I talk about feeding in my counseling sessions and classes I always start with why. Why are we doing what we are doing when feeding children? What’s the outcome that we want? The bottom line is that it is almost always the same thing. We want our children to develop a healthy relationship with food, but what exactly does that mean.

What does it mean to develop a healthy relationship with food?

A healthy relationship with food is about respecting the enjoyment and nourishment of food. Many people who think about developing this healthy relationship with food think about intuitive eating. This approach rejects diets, but honors hunger and satiety and having a balance with food: knowing there is no moral context when it comes to eating. As parents, we have the gift of providing our children with that healthy relationship: babies are born with innate hunger and satiety cues, so if we continue to foster those cues in our children we are helping to foster that relationship.

The Division of Responsibility

Although we feed our infants on demand, it can be challenging to navigate feeding as our children grow. Ellyn Satter developed the Division of Responsibility. The Division of Responsibility states that: “parents or caregivers are responsible for the what, when and where or feeding, children are responsible for the how much or whether of eating.” What this means is that as parents or caregivers we are responsbile for the what (food), when (timing of meals) and where (place to consume said food) while we allow our children to be responsible for how much they will eat of the food provided. This means we don’t bribe, pressure or force our children to eat food.

Getting started with the division of responsibility

If this approach to feeding is not something you are familiar with, or you are looking to get started, here are a few helpful tips, without feeling overwhelmed:

  1. Work to set up a structure for meals and snacks. As the parent you determine what that structure may look like (though most children require some sort of nourishment every 2-3 hours).

  2. Plan your meals and snacks. Meal planning has been so helpful for our family. Writing out “what’s on the menu” leaves no surprises and no littles ones “begging” for something that’s not on the menu.

  3. Relax during mealtime. Work toward realizing it is NOT your responsibility for your child to eat a certain quantity of specific foods. Let’s let them be in control of what they put into their bodies.

I realize these tips are easier said than done, and for some children on the more selective or pickier side, they can be challenging. In the coming weeks, I plan to create new posts with information and strategies to implement some of these tips. And if you have specific questions, always feel free to contact me and we can connect.

And why YOUR relationship with food matters as well

I believe it is also important to address that a parent or caregivers relationship with food is important as well. If we don’t have that healthy relationship, it might be challenging to pass that on to our little ones. As a pediatric dietitian, it is something I am constantly working on, as it has not come naturally to me. There are some great resources on finding that healthy relationship within yourself. I find THIS to be a really great place to get started.