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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Moves and counter-moves with feeding your child

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

Just because you are on the side of the angels in maintaining the division of responsibility in feeding does not mean that your child will enthusiastically get with the program. Parents often cross the lines of the division of responsibility in feeding because their child’s eating behavior triggers controlling or permissive feeding behavior.

Stay on your side of the division of responsibility in feeding

Consistently dealing with the small things means you won’t have to deal with the big things. Struggles for control that you don’t resolve when your child is young will be there in spades when he is a teenager.

Below are examples from Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family of moves (your child’s) and counter-moves (yours) in feeding. The moves start with those typical of toddlers and preschoolers, then work up to those of school-age children and adolescents. Your child’s moves entice you across the lines of the division of responsibility in feeding. Your counter-moves keep you doing your jobs and resisting the temptation, if not the outright invitation, to do his jobs. Your child is not being naughty. He is just clarifying the rules and trying for control. That’s what children do and how they learn. Children always try for control: it is part of growing up.


Your child’s move, your counter-move

Your child says/does

You say/do

He says, “I’m not hungry.”

You say, “You don’t have to eat; just sit with us for a while.”

He is too worked up and busy to eat.

Spend a few minutes with him reading a book or washing hands. Set a five-minute timer to alert the child that mealtime is coming.

He can’t take time to eat.

Arrange for him to be hungry by not letting him graze for food.

He is too hungry to wait for meals.

Have sit-down snacks at set times between meals

He is too messy; he uses his fingers to eat.

Grin and bear it, cover the floor. Observe his concentration and creativity.

He doesn’t want to stay at the table until you finish eating. 

Let him down when he gets enough. He will stay at the table longer as he gets older and learns to enjoy conversation.

He is naughty or otherwise disruptive at the table.

Let him down. He is full or he would eat and behave!

He comes back right after the meal, begging for a food handout. 

Don’t give him food until snack time. Ignore his tantrums.

He gets down, but wants your attention, to sit on your lap, to eat off your plate. 

Pat him on the head and send him away. Teach him to play quietly while you eat.

He doesn’t eat “enough” at mealtime.

Only he knows how much is enough. Don’t let him graze between times for food or beverages, except water. Plan a snack for a specific time and stick to it.

He says, “Can I get the peanut butter? I can put peanut butter on my bread.” 

You say, “No, that’s like making a separate meal. You don’t have to eat anything if you don’t want to, but you do have to settle for what is on the table.”

He wants to make something different: “Why isn’t that all right? You don’t have to do it!”

“Because part of family meals is sharing the same food. You don’t have to eat anything if you don’t want to.”

“Why not?” 

“Because those are the rules.”

“Why do I have to be home in time for dinner? How about if I just warm up what you had when I get home?”

“Dinner is more about family than about food. You are an important part of the family.”


Your job is feeding; his job is eating

All the little skirmishes matter because they add up to the big picture in parenting. If you consistently deal with the small things, you won’t have to deal with the big things. Struggles for control that you don’t resolve when your child is young will be there in spades when he is a teenager.

 

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