Raising great eaters

Registered nutritionist HELEN POTTER urges parents to rethink their approach to feeding their “picky” eaters. By KATE BARBER.

In a world where decisions are largely made for them, children exercise agency through food, says Helen. “The more coercion we use, the more they are likely to react against it. There is a danger, too, that when we force our kids to finish their plates, we override their internal messages about being full.”

Helen urges parents to think about their aspirations for their children. “We want our children to listen to their own bodies and to develop positive attitudes towards food”. 

Helen’s primary focus is on re-conceiving mealtimes: from a power struggle over getting food into the kids, to an opportunity for the family to spend time together, with all family members having some say over the food they put in their mouths.   

She refers to Ellyn Satter’s, “Division of Responsibility” (DoR) in feeding as offering guiding principles for parents aspiring to raise competent eaters. 

The basic principles of Satter’s DoR, regardless of the age of your child/ren, are: 

  • the parent is responsible for what, when and where 
  • the child is responsible for how much and whether.

“We determine what food to bring into the house, when our kids eat, and where they eat – the dining table for dinner, for instance. However, our children choose whether to eat a certain food and how much to eat.” 

Helen stresses that, “Within this model, it is fundamentally important that we trust and respect our children.” She reminds parents that, “Children learn through making choices, along with mistakes, which may mean going to bed hungry if they choose not to eat.” 

Helen reminds parents that making this change might be hard at first. But, she insists that being a positive role-model yourself and taking the pressure off your kids will pay off in the end – in terms of both family relationships and in terms of your kids’ attitudes towards food.

Helen’s primary focus is on re-conceiving mealtimes: from a power struggle over getting food into the kids, to an opportunity for the family to spend time together, with all family members having some say over the food they put in their mouths. 

For more reading: ellynsatterinstitute.org

Mealtime tips

Helen offers advice for parents when it comes to creating more positive experiences around mealtimes.

  • Make your expectations clear: “At dinner time, we sit together as a family. You can choose to eat dinner, or we can just sit and talk. There won’t be any other food after dinner.” 
  • Don’t make multiple dinners and don’t have multiple dinner times.
  • Start by thanking whoever made the food.
  • Be a positive role-model in your own eating choices and behaviour around the table.
  • Give children options but not free rein.
  • Don’t put large portions on their plates: it can be overwhelming.
  • If you can, involve children in food preparation or setting the table.
  • If they say it’s “yucky”, tell them they do not have to eat it, but they do need to stay at the dinner table during dinnertime. 
  • Ask kids about their preferences, but don’t use words like “healthy”/”unhealthy”, “yummy”/”yucky”. 
  • Never refer to your child as a “picky”/”fussy” eater.
  • Be careful not to show your kids your agenda. 
  • Don’t say, “If you eat this, you can have dessert.” 
  • Focus on enjoying each other’s company!