I am on a committee called the “north shore education committee for disordered eating” in North Vancouver,BC. As you might imagine the subject of eating disorder prevention is on the top of our agenda. Rarely a day goes by that I do not hear someone mention, either subtly or overtly, that they experience a varying degree of angst around the subject of food and body image.
Parents often voice concerns about their child’s eating habits and sometimes unsuspectingly impose adult “values” at mealtime. Now, please don’t misunderstand, I know first hand how frustrating it can be when your child relegates healthy and tasty food to the “de-yuck” category. I’m going out on a limb here, but I believe my son invented the “de-yuck” category, which according to him is the opposite of delicious! So, what can we, as parents, do to help our children and ourselves have happier mealtimes, you might ask?
Well, according to Ellyn Satter*, pioneer in the field of eating dynamics, we need to remember a few key things. As parents, we are responsible for “the division of responsibilities”. That is, parents are responsible to provide “what”, “when”, “where” the child will be eating, and the child is responsible for “how much” and “whether”. It is our job to provide a calm and supportive mealtime environment, and to demonstrate through example the behaviour we expect to see. If we have an expectation that our children eat healthful meals then we need to be doing the same, with them. “Feeding” a child breakfast, lunch and dinner is one thing but teaching a child to listen to their body cues of hunger and fullness is another.
When children are offered a selection of foods at predictable times in the day, and they avoid snacking in between, they will generally regulate food intake appropriately for their individual needs. Imposing an expectation regarding the amount of food they “should” be eating is arbitrary and essentially harmful. Your child will eat what they need to eat if they are eating at predictable times in the day, on a daily basis. Trust their hunger and fullness cues.
Also, I cannot underscore enough how important the family meal is. Yes, we all have job demands, extended family concerns, practices and games to attend, music, art and/or dance lessons to get to, but all of these extracurricular activities aimed at making our children be the best they can be pale in comparison to the importance of taking time out, as a family. It’s essential to break bread and connect emotionally, physically and mentally.
The family meal will set you and your family up for success in the future. Children will learn through family dinners how to behave during mealtime, how to try, and perhaps even like the food their parents are eating, and to become friends with food rather than fear it. If you already incorporate daily family meals then you are on the right track, stick with it! If a family meal tradition is something you haven’t tried then why not try it now. You will be paving the way for a healthy way of looking at mealtimes. And remember, we as parents are responsible for what, when and where; our children are responsible for how much and whether!
*Ellyn Satter is a Registered Dietitian, holder of the Diplomat in Clinical Social Work and who is in private psychotherapy practice. Satter has combined her expertise in nutrition and psychology to pioneer the field of feeding dynamics. Her Division of Responsibility in Feeding has become the golden rule for feeding children.