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Family Meals Focus

The Ellyn Satter Institute Newsletter

The vegetable agenda: Getting children to eat “nutritious” food

by Ellyn Satter, Family Therapist and Registered Dietitian Nutritionist

The goal is not getting-vegetables-into-your-child-right-now. It is supporting your child so she learns to enjoy vegetables for her lifetime. She will learn to eat vegetables and other nutritious food when you follow the division of responsibility in feeding (sDOR) and matter-of-factly eat and enjoy vegetables and other nutritious foods, yourself. You give your child unpressured opportunities to learn when you include nutritious foods in meals and snacks and are faithful about doing the what, when, and where of feeding and scrupulous about letting your child do the how much and whether of eating.

Is sDOR laissez faire?

sDOR has to be properly applied in order for it to be effective. It doesn’t work to do lip service to sDOR and then apply pressure on children to eat. Beyond proper application, trusting sDOR to do its work requires steady nerves and a leap of faith. Some remain unconvinced. Blissett et al appear to capture the skeptical attitudes of some child-feeding researchers with the claim that children don’t accept vegetables and other “less-palatable” foods following sDOR’s “laissez-faire” approach.1 Toward the goal of increasing children’s vegetable consumption, researchers explore serving vegetables first,2 giving larger portions of fruits and vegetables,3 encouraging children’s “engagement with new foods” by using rewards, bargains, and other prompts,4 giving incentives,5 giving parent-administered rewards,6 using heroic role models and rewards,7 and providing trusted-adult modeling and rewards.8

As anyone knows who maintains the day-in-day-out of sDOR, it is anything but laissez faire. Continually being the gatekeeper, menu-planner, food-preparer, and structure-enforcer—and doing it throughout the child’s growing-up years—is a tall order. Certainly, parents’ discharging those responsibilities exerts a powerful influence on children’s food acceptance. However, from the perspective of the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model (fdSatter), the parents’ role in exercising their food-management prerogative is just that: to discharge their own responsibilities relative to utilizing resources and providing nutritionally for the family. Period.

Who controls what?

Control is an issue of who controls what, with each party having its own sphere of influence. It is not a matter of degree. With sDOR it is clear: Parent: whatwhenwhere; child: how muchwhether. You can’t drift from one sphere to another, and none of the parts can be missing. .

The priority in following sDOR is feeding the family, not feeding the child, and the fdSatter-consistent attitude is that the child is growing up to eat the foods that parents eat. It is not to exert either overt or covert control 9 over the child’s food intake. It is a subtle interplay—for adults—but not for children. If pressure comes into feeding—if the adult doing food management has the agenda of controlling what the child eats—the child knows it and reacts negatively. She struggles with the parent rather than taking responsibility for eating or not eating.

Control is an issue of who controls what, with each party having its own sphere of influence. It is not a matter of degree. With sDOR it is clear: Parent: what, when, where; child: how much, whether. You can’t drift from one sphere to another, and none of the parts can be missing. Trying to get a child to eat vegetables intrudes on the child’s sphere of influence, whether it is direct “parent-centered” (telling and struggling) or indirect “child centered” (reasoning and praising),10 or described in sophisticated language such as “encouragement through negotiation” or “firm but not coercive” parenting with food.11 Certainly, parents control food selection and meal planning—that is their sphere of influence. We educate them about maintaining the structure of meals and snacks and being considerate without catering in doing menu-planning for families. If they ask for it, we give food selection information within the context of supporting eating competence. Doing food management is within adults’ sphere of influence. However, what and how much the child actually eats are in the child’s sphere of influence. When adults try in any way to get the child to eat in any amount the available food (even highly nutritious food), the child feels controlled and rebels. The mealtime experience is impaired, the child’s pride in mastery is undermined, and she is likely to eat less well, not better.

Getting children to eat vegetables is not the point.

fdSatter and sDOR are about quality of life: Parents’ harmonious relationships with food and with feeding their children. Achieving harmony requires trust in one’s self and one’s child relative to eating. Even if controlling methods increase children’s consumption of target foods, and even if that consumption is longer-term, as some research shows,6,8 it is likely to come at the cost of introducing disharmony into feeding. Getting children to eat certain foods isn’t the point of sDOR. Instead, it is raising children to be eating competent with respect to their eating attitudes and behaviors.12 To be eating competent throughout life with respect to food acceptance depends on a sense of self-direction with respect to choosing what to eat and a sense of agency with respect to exploring unfamiliar food and learning to eat it. Children raised according to sDOR have these positive inclinations; those raised using controlling feeding methods do not. 

References

  1.  Blissett J, Higgs S. Authors’ response. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Apr 2013;113(4):509-510.
  2.  Spill MK, Birch LL, Roe LS, Rolls BJ. Eating vegetables first: the use of portion size to increase vegetable intake in preschool children. Am J Clin Nutr. May 1, 2010 2010;91(5):1237-1243.
  3.  Mathias KC, Rolls BJ, Birch LL, et al. Serving larger portions of fruits and vegetables together at dinner promotes intake of both foods among young children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Feb 2012;112(2):266-270.
  4.  Blissett J, Bennett C, Donohoe J, Rogers S, Higgs S. Predicting successful introduction of novel fruit to preschool children. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Dec 2012;112(12):1959-1967.
  5.  Cooke LJ, Chambers LC, Anez EV, et al. Eating for Pleasure or Profit: The Effect of Incentives on Children’s Enjoyment of Vegetables. Psychol Sci. Feb 1 2011;22(2):190-196.
  6.  Remington A, Annez E, Croker H, Wardle J, Cooke L. Increasing food acceptance in the home setting: a randomized controlled trial of parent-administered taste exposure with incentives. Am J Clin Nutr. Jan 2012;95(1):72-77.
  7.  Wengreen HJ, Madden GJ, Aguilar SS, Smits RR, Jones BA. Incentivizing Children’s Fruit and Vegetable Consumption: Results of a United States Pilot Study of the Food Dudes Program. J Nutr Educ Behav. Jan 2013;45(1):54-59.
  8.  Horne PJ, Greenhalgh J, Erjavec M, Lowe CF, Viktor S, Whitaker CJ. Increasing pre-school children’s consumption of fruit and vegetables. A modelling and rewards intervention. Appetite. Apr 2011;56(2):375-385.
  9.  Ogden J, Reynolds R, Smith A. Expanding the concept of parental control: a role for overt and covert control in children’s snacking behaviour? Appetite. 2006;47(1):100-106.
  10.  Hughes SO, Power TG, Fisher JO, Mueller S, Nicklas TA. Revisiting a neglected construct: Parenting styles in a child-feeding title. Appetite. 2005;44:83-92.
  11.  Vereecken C, Legiest E, De Bourdeaudhuij I, Maes L. Associations between general parenting styles and specific food-related parenting practices and children’s food consumption. Am J Health Promot. Mar-Apr 2009;23(4):233-240.
  12.  Satter EM. Eating Competence: definition and evidence for the Satter Eating Competence Model. J Nutr Educ Behav. 2007;39 (suppl):S142-S153.

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