Do You Have A Feeding Strategy?

Sam trying to swipe one of Santa's cookies...or some of the reindeers' broccoli (okay, probably not)

Sam trying to swipe one of Santa’s cookies…or some of the reindeer’s broccoli (yeah, probably not)

I was reading one of my go-to blogs, Raise Healthy Eaters, when I came across a post called “Why Every Parent Needs A Feeding Strategy”.

I flew into a semi-panic. Did I have a feeding strategy?  I had a collection of household food policies and a whole bunch of opinions. But a feeding strategy sounded way better than that.

So this week, I interviewed the dietitian behind Raising Healthy Eaters, Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, M.S., R.D., who is also a mom of two. Here’s what she had to say about the best way to feed your kids:

When you say that every parent needs a “feeding strategy”, what do you mean by that?

I want parents to know that “how” they feed their kids is as important as “what” they feed them.  Parents really need to think about this and be on the same page.  I use Ellyn Satter‘s Division of Responsibility — parents decide the “what,” “when” and “where” of feeding, and children decide the “whether” and “how much”.  I also provide my kids with regular meals and snacks, most at the kitchen table.  By following this strategy, it helps prevent many problems because my children know the routine and don’t try to fight it.  Most problems occur when either parent or child crosses the Division of Responsibility—when children decide what to eat or parents try to force a kid to eat.  Having a feeding strategy simplifies things and makes feeding times pleasant.

What’s the biggest mistake you see parents making when it comes to feeding their kids?

I think parents cater to their children too much out of fear that they will go hungry.  The problem with this is that kids never learn to like a wider variety of foods.  Parents don’t realize that the family table is where kids learn about food.  I think parents feel they have to choose between their kids favorites and adult food—but they don’t.  For example, I’m very strategic with what I serve at meals.  If dinner is a new or disliked item, then I make sure that lunch is a favorite.  I also include at least two items I know my kid is likely to eat at every meal (though there are no guarantees).  Over the last couple of months my 3-year old has tried more food like soup, lettuce and broccoli.  Eventually, with enough exposures to food, kids will try more and more.  And they’ll be very proud of themselves.

So many kids are obsessed with dessert. In your house, do you have any special strategies when it comes to sweet treats?

We follow the Division of Responsibility, so when my 3-year old asks for something sweet I say, “Mommy decides” and tell her we’ll have it another time.  We almost always have ice cream at home but don’t have it every night.  I save the ice cream for nights my husband is out, then she and I will have it together.  I make cookies every once and a while and give some to her as a snack.  I follow Satter’s advice to let children have as much of sweets as they want when you do offer them (not to graze, but at the table).  So when I offer cookie for a snack, I let her have cookies until she’s satisfied.  Last time I did this she had 2 1/2 cookies.  I do the same with the ice cream.  I think this is one reason my daughter doesn’t seem so obsessed with sweets.  I was brought up in a home where sweets came and went so fast (five siblings fighting over them!) and it took me quite a few years to calm my sweet obsession.

You’re not a fan of the “two-more-bites” approach, but what about the kid who barely eats any dinner then asks for a snack 30 minutes later?

Having a feeding strategy really helps, as does having items at dinner you know they like. Anytime we make children eat more than they want, we teach them to eat for external reasons instead of tuning into their bodies.  A better alternative to asking for “two more bites” is to ask if they are full—and remind them when the next meal or snack will be. I think it’s okay to let a child get hungry. That’s how they learn.

How can kids learn by feeling hunger?

If children are never allowed to get hungry, they will never learn how to manage that hunger by eating enough at dinner. As parents, we can help by asking them if they’re full and reminding them that this is the last meal or snack.  I think hunger and fullness are the first nutrition lessons kids get.  It’s much better to teach them to tune into their bodies than to take a few more bites or clean their plates. I understand that this is very difficult for parents, especially moms (me included!).  It’s very natural to want your child to be full and satisfied.  But if parents are offering food every 2-3 hours (3 meals and 2-3 snacks), they have to trust that their kids are getting enough.  And it’s okay for them to be hungry every once and a while. (Though for kids who stay up later, I think incorporating a bedtime snack is a good idea too.)

What’s one thing parents can do tonight at dinner to put their kids on the road to being healthier eaters?

Make mealtime pleasant and not about “what” or “how much” their kids are eating. It’s funny because my daughter doesn’t know she’s a picky eater because we don’t make a big deal of it.  If meals are pleasant, kids will want to come to the table night after night and they will be more likely to eat.  And hopefully they will continue the family meal tradition when they become parents.

You can read some of Maryann’s posts here:

Preventing Childhood Eating Problems

Making Family Dinners More Kid-Friendly

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