Often times we are so focused on the “what” of feeding that we totally forget the “how.” While the “what” is certainly important, the “how” is just as important. Ellyn Satter, one of the foremost authorities on children’s nutrition, pioneered the Division of Responsibility concept when it comes to feeding our children. In short, parents are responsible for the What, When, and Where of feeding, while the child is responsible for the How Much or Whether to eat at all.
We can probably all think back to our own childhood or talk to friends to hear examples of “the clean plate club,” where we sat at the dinner table for hours in a battle of will, food being withheld or used as punishment, etc. These early experiences do much to shape our own relationship with food and set the tone for how we feel about food for the rest of our lives, not to mention how we choose to present food to our own children. Parents have the best of intentions, and are often not aware how our actions can really backfire into negative behavior in our children such as restrictive eating, overeating or picky eating.
Family style meals are a great way to achieve the Division of Responsibility. The parent fixes a variety of foods and puts them all on the dinner table. Each person can then choose which food and the amount for his or her own plate. If you don’t want the food in the middle of your dinner table, you could create a buffet on the kitchen counter and allow everyone to serve themselves. Of course, having a sturdy stool or step ladder for the children makes this easier. If your child chooses not to eat a portion of the food or only wants to eat fruit, for example, then that is okay. There will always be another meal where he will most likely make up for it. It is difficult to resist the urge to cajole, bribe or negotiate with your child on what and how much to eat, but do not interfere. Rather, the best course of action is to be a good example by eating a variety of foods and refraining from negative comments about food dislikes.
A twist on this concept is the “Dinner Bar,” which fellow dietitian and child nutrition expert, Jill Castle of Just the Right Byte, created. She prepares an assortment of foods and toppings that the family can then assemble into their own entrée. It doesn’t have to be anything elaborate, just quick and easy to throw together. Some ideas include tacos, chopped salad, tostadas, pizza or baked potatoes. My family recently assembled our own pizzas and my 3-year-old loved picking and choosing the toppings for his very own pizza.
Meals should be relaxing and enjoyable for everyone, not a stressful battle. With a toddler around, this is often easier said than done – and I know from experience at my own house. Once the food is served, the parent’s job is done with regards to food selection. You can now focus on teaching your child what is acceptable behavior at the table. See Dr. Z’s post on Teaching Table Manners for more on that. Of course, there are some nights where I am tired or feeling worn down from my son’s antics, but I know that being consistent is very important for him to learn the rules and for us to continue to enjoy our meals together. It is our time to talk to one another and catch up on daily events. I just love it when my son turns to my husband and asks in a grown-up voice, “Daddy, how was your day today?”
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