Q: How can I get my 3-year old daughter to eat more at mealtime?
A: Many nutrition educators and other professionals interested in child development use Ellyn Satter as a reference when the topic of feeding children is discussed. As a registered dietitian and licensed social worker, Satter emphasizes the division of responsibility in feeding as a basis for all child-feeding practices. The parent is responsible for what the toddler eats, when she eats and where she eats. It is the parents’ responsibility to provide regular meals and snacks, choose and prepare the food, and not allow the child to graze for food or beverages between meal and snack times. The child is responsible for how much to eat and whether she chooses to eat.
On her Web site, there are many links to useful pages and pdfs that are helpful to families as well as child-care providers. Reproduced with permission, here’s what Satter shared in one of the fact sheets on children’s eating and growth:
All children know how much to eat: the large child and the small child, the big eater and the small eater. All grow in the often surprising way nature intended. Your child will get hungry, eat, get filled up and stop eating (even in the middle of a bowl of ice cream). Whether your child needs a lot or a little, she instinctively eats as much as she needs. If you follow the division of responsibility with feeding, she will automatically eat the right amount of food to grow and be as active as is right for her. Provided you don’t try to control her, she can even make up for her mistakes in eating. To be competent with eating and therefore to do well with her lifetime of eating amounts that are right for her and weighing what is right for her body, she needs to be allowed to preserve her sensitivity to her internal sensations of hunger, appetite and satiety.
Children who eat and grow at the extremes make their parents so nervous that they often interfere. It backfires. In our weight-obsessed culture, parents may try to restrict a robust child with a hearty appetite because they assume that enjoying food and eating a lot means she will get fat. It doesn’t, and it doesn’t work. Children who don’t get enough to eat — or fear they won’t — become preoccupied with food and tend to overeat when they get a chance. Parents may try to push food on a small, thin child with a small appetite, assuming she is doing poorly and thinking they should fatten her up a bit. It doesn’t, and it doesn’t work. Children who have food pushed on them become turned off by it and tend undereat when they get the chance.
Don’t try to control the amount your child eats. It’s her job to decide how much to eat, not yours. Instead:
• Maintain a division of responsibility in feeding.
• Do family-friendly feeding.
• Offer sit-down snacks between meals.
• Let your child grow up to get the body that is right for her.
For more about raising children who eat as much as they need and get bodies that are right for them (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter’s “Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming,” Kelcy Press, 2005. Also see www.EllynSatter.com.
— Susan Krumm is an Extension agent in family and consumer sciences with K-State Research and Extension-Douglas County, 2110 Harper St. She can be reached at 843-7058.