I can help you establish respectful feeding practices foundationally. I am not qualified to diagnose or treat specific conditions. If you are concerned that your child’s eating behaviors indicate physical or developmental concerns or the presence of an eating disorder, please contact a non-diet dietician, speech-language pathologist, or other appropriate specialist.
Let’s raise children to connect with and care for, not compare, their bodies.
There are lots of ways to do this, and many of them happen at the table. My child feeding practice is modeled after Ellyn Satter's Division of Responsibility with an Intuitive Eating influence.
Division of Responsibility* means the adults choose what's served, where it's served, and when it's served. The children choose if they eat it, and how much.
Mental health needs to be part of the feeding equation. Intuitive Eating** is a self-care eating framework, which integrates instinct, emotion, and rational thought.
I encourage children to be scientists about their physical and emotional responses to food.
...all of which are welcomed and celebrated for the feedback they provide, including experiences that can be uncomfortable for parents and caregivers to witness, like when a child:
eats less than it seems like they need,
eats past fullness,
eats nutritionally unbalanced meals,
eats to soothe difficult emotions,
and other things our society typically villainizes.
The truth is that these are morally neutral experiences that come with having a body. Children are incredible at compensating for what adults perceive as imbalances at their next meal or over the course of several days.
Following authentic curiosity about food and how their body responds to it, without shame or judgement, lets children experience embodiment.
Embodiment means they are able to notice body cues and make individualized decisions about how to respond to those cues.
Their process of experimentation gives them answers to internal questions like: What does it feel like to eat [number] packages of gummy fruit snacks? Does it give me energy? What does the energy feel like? How long does the energy last? Do the gummies in the last pack taste the same as the first?
Children are better scientists about their bodies than adults are with all of our biases.
I often want to teach children intuitive eating skills, but they were born with them, so I know I mostly need to stay out of their way. When I get the impulse to offer instruction, I channel it toward a new recipe or way of presenting a food. I cut the apple into circles instead of wedges. I channel my impulse to DO SOMETHING toward the satisfaction factor.
Make Mealtimes Fun
Children learn best when they feel good, and that’s true for how they learn to relate to their body and how they nourish it. Most of the time, pleasant mealtimes aren’t a big show. Think about what a pleasant meal means to you.
A pleasant meal starts with food you genuinely enjoy or are at least curious about. The food will be more enjoyable (hello, biology) if you’ve come to the meal hungry but not starved. You might have environmental preferences, like sitting outside on a nice day, having music on, having done a quick tidy up first -- things like that. Perhaps you're comforted and regulated by predictable but flexible routines.
You know what doesn’t make mealtimes pleasant? Having another person monitor what you serve yourself, offer unsolicited advice about nutrition, or talk up their personal food rules like they’ve found spiritual salvation.
So I don’t do that to kids.
But Nanny Sarah, if I don’t tell my children about the dangers of eating [food you’re scared of here], how will they avoid those dangers?!
Here’s the thing. Children are black and white thinkers. It’s not appropriate to teach them about nutrition because they haven’t developed the ability to adapt food rules in context. Labeling foods as healthy or unhealthy can cause harm to a child’s relationship with food in the short and long term.
When foods are labeled as “sometimes foods,” what does the child believe about themselves when they want the “bad” food so, so much? The answer is devastating: they believe they themselves are bad.
Do you remember climbing on the counter to get into the treats cabinet?
Do you remember feeling like something was wrong with you?
Nothing was wrong with you. Functionally, our bodies produce more dopamine in response to foods that have been restricted, so the more something is restricted, the more coveted it’s going to become. This is a hard-wired survival mechanism to be honored, not feared.
Practice food neutrality. I have seen it in action with kids, and it looks like freedom. I’m no longer surprised when a child loves a vegetable, embraces a spicy food, or leaves some cake on their plate -- things we don’t expect of children. Actually, when given the freedom to explore, their tastes can be broad. Food neutrality offers freedom for adults too!
If a child eats all of one food item you’ve served and asks for more while there are still other foods on the table, do you serve more of that item?
It’s okay to have boundaries around labor. I'm not going to boil more eggs after I just did that -- you can if you want to -- but I'll grieve with the child. "I'm sad we're out of boiled eggs too. I was really enjoying them." I might use the information to decide to serve a higher quantity next time, or I might not.
Most often I trust that, because I'm serving a variety of foods reliably throughout the day, the child will not be hungry and will overall have pleasant and satisfying associations with mealtimes.
What a relief that trust can be.
Real-life boundaries will occur with food. We can support children with whatever feelings come up for them in that.
My brothers and I used to split up crackers for the week into three bags, one for each of us, to ensure fair Goldfish distribution. Each of us would’ve gladly eaten the whole box otherwise and started a war. My dad most often chose not to buy more crackers. It's okay that he made that choice. Grocery budgets exist and, for many, are tight or even non-existent. We figured out a system that worked.
Compassion is key.
I look forward to continuing this conversation on child feeding as I continue to learn from all the amazing resources out there, grow, and recover from diet culture. Thank you for adventuring with me.
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*The Division of Responsibility article linked mentions the “o” word, which is inherently stigmatizing, so this seems as good a time as any to clarify that The Ellyn Satter Institute is not HAES-aligned. I pledge (literally) my commitment to aligning with Health at Every Size principles in my parent coaching services, nanny services, and online content. I believe Ellyn Satter’s work is foundational in weight-neutral child feeding. I use a take what you like, leave what you don’t approach as I explore Satter Institute materials.
**I linked to the Feeding Littles tag for Intuitive Eating because I think there’s a lot of great info there for parents. I encourage you to check out the official Intuitive Eating website as well, with an emphasis on the 10 Principles of Intuitive Eating.