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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

Family meals: Stuff to know

by Ellyn Satter, Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist

Define your child’s mealtime success in terms of his mealtime attitudes and behaviors rather than his eating all of everything that is put before him. When your child is relaxed and comfortable and feels successful at mealtime, sooner or later he will learn to eat almost everything that you eat.

Your child wants to be successful at mealtime

Your child eats best when mealtime rules and expectations make it possible for him to be successful. Make your mealtime rules realistic by following the division of responsibility in feeding: you do the feeding and let your child do the eating. Teach your child to say “yes, please,” and “no thank” to food, and accept his normally erratic eating behavior. Recognize your child for his contributions to a pleasant mealtime. ”I like having you at the table,” is good recognition for a child who isn’t interested in eating. ”Nice passing,” or ”it is fun hearing your story,” gets the focus off eating on to the child’s positive mealtime behavior. 

Eating with trusted grownups is most important of all 

Eat with your child; don’t just feed him. Critical to children’s comfort and success with eating is having meals with a trusted grownup. Children always do more and dare more when they have emotional support. Children also imitate their peers, and are inclined to eat what they eat. In the mealtime context, seeing the food, passing it, and seeing others eat it all add up to the 5 to 20, or more, neutral exposures that allow a child to learn to eat a new food.1 ”No-thank-you bites” (asking children to taste everything) are not necessary and, in fact, represent pressure and therefore slow the child’s process of learning to eat new food. Tables aren’t even necessary. The key is sitting facing each other and sharing the same food and, certainly, turning off the TV and putting away toys and electronic devices.

Portions: In the bowl, on the plate or in the child?

”No-thank-you bites” represent pressure and therefore slow the child’s learning to eat new food.

The USDA meal pattern for the Child Care Food Plan defines age-related portion sizes. This is to ensure that children are offered enough to eat. But policy makers, inspectors, and teachers differ with respect to where that portion goes? In the bowl? On the plate? In the child? The feeding dynamics response? In the bowl. Children know how much they need to eat. Children do and dare more when they feel they have control. Children self-regulate best when they are allowed to serve themselves from serving bowls.2

Toddlers can serve themselves

Head Start teachers and Child Care providers know that children 18 months to 2 years old can serve themselves. Children want to do it themselves, and small serving bowls and utensils allow them to be successful. Of course, they make a mess, but messes go with children! Put down a washable drop cloth. Gradually children learn the rules: sit on your chair; eat off your plate (your own plate); use the serving spoon; say ”no, thank you;” use words to ask and tell (don’t whine and cry); keep your hands to yourself. 

Homeless parents still provide

Parents who provide for their children by living in homeless shelters are still providing, even though remembering that may be excruciatingly difficult. Children most fear that their parents won’t make it. The parent’s unapologetic and matter-of-fact attitude eases that fear. Family mealtimes, from any source and in any context, reassure children that their parents’ priority is looking out for them and keeping the family together. 




1. Birch LL. Development of food acceptance patterns. Developmental Psychology. 1990;26(4):515-519.

2. Fisher JO, Rolls BJ, Birch LL. Children’s bite size and intake of an entree are greater with large portions than with age-appropriate or self-selected portions. Am J Clin Nutr. 2003;77:1164-1170.

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