Few health conditions are more prevalent in the news than the childhood obesity “epidemic.” As a registered dietitian, I am often called upon to speak with parents and children about ways to reduce a child’s body mass index (BMI) by helping them lose weight.
Often parents feel that they must police their children’s food choices and amounts eaten, leading to a strained relationship between parent and child. I believe that there is another, more nurturing way to feed children and help them grow into the body that is right for them.
During my dietetic internships, I spent many weeks at Women Infants and Children, or WIC. This federal program provides nutrition education and food vouchers to pregnant women, postpartum women and children under the age of five. Developed by dietitian and family counselor Ellyn Satter, their philosophy is based on the division of responsibility in feeding. I found these principles extremely helpful in my internship and still use them today.
Satter’s division of responsibility in feeding is based on the understanding that when parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their job with eating. According to information published on her website, EllynSatterInstitute.org, the parents’ jobs are to:
• Choose and prepare the food.
• Provide regular meals and snacks.
• Make eating times pleasant.
• Step-by-step, show the child by example how to behave at family mealtime.
• Be considerate of the child’s lack of eating experiences without catering to likes and dislikes.
• Not let the child have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
• Let the child grow into the body that is right for them.
The parent needs to trust the child to:
• Eat the amount they need.
• Learn to eat the food the parents eat.
• Grow predictably in a way that is right for them.
• Learn to behave well at mealtime.
You can find more information at www.ellynsatterinstitute.org/how-to-feed/the-division-of-responsibility-in-feeding/.
Simplified, parents are responsible for when meal and snack times occur, where they occur and what is served. Children are responsible for how much of and whether they eat what is provided. It is vital for parents, family members and guests to remain neutral through mealtimes no matter what the child eats or does not eat. It is also important to include a wide variety of foods, including foods that the parent does not like or considers to be “treat” foods. This helps expose children to many different foods while learning that all foods can fit into their diet. Children often need to be exposed to foods multiple times before trying them. That’s normal and parents need to have patience and keep providing their children with new foods to try.
One important way to help expose the child to new foods is to include them both in preparing meals and in planning what to eat in a way that is appropriate for their age. For example, you might ask a 2-year-old to put chopped carrots on top of a salad, rather than asking them to cut the carrots with a sharp knife. There are a variety of tasks even young children can do, such as pushing buttons on a microwave or blender, washing fruits and vegetables, helping set the table, stirring a non-hot item, or including them in taste tests (if they choose). I find it especially true with the very young that they want to be given a job to do. You are the best judge of what your child is capable of doing.
As far as planning meals, the system my parents used was to ask my siblings and me to prepare one meal for that week. Every week we each picked a recipe to make. We used the ingredients list from the recipe to identify which foods were needed to make the recipe.
We looked in the pantry and refrigerator to see what we already had, compared what each of us needed to make our recipe, and added those items to the weekly grocery list. It taught us to work together, and we learned valuable cooking skills. It also saved my parents time in the grocery store since they only had to go once per week.
Finally, a note on growth. A high BMI is often used to classify people, including children, as fat. This classification can be misleading. Some children are simply bigger than others. Unfortunately, this classification is followed by well-meaning advice on how to slim a child down. In turn, this leads to outside pressures placed on the child to eat a certain way. It is time to stop this! Instead of pressuring your child to conform to a body size and shape that may not be right for them, trust them to eat what and how much they need. If you have already been trying to slim your child down, it may take as long as a few months for the child to trust that you will allow them to eat the amount they determine they need. Keep trusting your child to eat how much and what they need while still providing the structure that is your responsibility. This will teach them to listen to their body’s internal cues on eating. As long as their growth is tracking predictably along the growth curves, they are growing in an acceptable way.
The amazing thing is that this whole process works. I have seen it many, many times. Mealtimes go from being a battle to being pleasant and enjoyable for everyone. Children grow at a pace that is appropriate for them. Children learn to try (and even like!) new foods. Child-parent relationships improve. Children are taught to listen to their internal hunger and fullness cues, a skill that is of the utmost importance throughout a person’s life. It is so rewarding to see the positive impact made in a family by parents doing their jobs in feeding and trusting the child to do their jobs with eating.
Lynn Eaton R.D., L.D., CDE is a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator. She works at Capital Region Medical Center as an inpatient and critical care dietitian. She also writes a nutrition blog, which you can follow at nutritionnotions.wordpress.com.
These frozen bites are a great way to cool off after being out in the hot sun. They take a few minutes to make and kids can easily help.
• 1 pound grapes, washed and removed from stems
• 1 cup vanilla (or your favorite flavor) yogurt.
Dietitian tip: try Greek yogurt for extra protein!
• Coconut flakes, chopped nuts, sprinkles, etc. for topping (if desired)
Place yogurt in a small bowl. Dip grapes in yogurt and turn to coat. Scoop grapes out of bowl with a fork.
Tap fork on edge of bowl to remove excess yogurt. Place on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Sprinkle with toppings (if desired) – this is a great place to get kids involved.
Place in freezer for at least two hours or until frozen.
Adapted from recipe by Megan on her blog, Food & Whine (http://foodwhine.com/2014/04/frozenyogurt-coated-grapes.html)
Total time: 2 hrs, 40 mins; marinating time: 2 hrs; prep time: 25 mins; cook time: 15 mins
• 1 orange, zested, then juiced, remainder discarded
• 1 lemon, zested, then juiced, remainder discarded
• 1 lime, zested, then juiced, remainder discarded
• 4 cloves garlic, minced
• 1 tbsp fresh or 1 tsp dried tarragon leaves
• ¼ cup reduced sodium soy sauce
• ¼ cup canola oil
• ½ tsp salt
• ½ tsp black pepper
• 1 lb boneless, skinless chicken breasts, cut into 1” cubes
• 1 medium bell pepper, cut into 1-inch squares
• 1 medium onion, cut into 1-inch squares
• 1 cup cherry tomatoes
• 1 cup mushrooms
• 1 cup pineapple chunks
Combine all chicken ingredients in a resealable plastic bag. Marinate in the refrigerator for two hours. Discard marinade. Place chicken chunks on skewers and grill over medium-high heat, turning every two to three minutes. Cook until thermometer inserted in thickest pieces of chicken reads at least 165° F, about 15 minutes. Remove from heat and keep warm.
While chicken is cooking, place vegetables on skewers. When chicken is off grill, place vegetables on heat and grill for about seven minutes.
Adapted from recipe by Bob Blumer (www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/build-your-ownshish-kabobs-recipe-1951931)