Feeding is Parenting

The feeding approach which can have a major impact on your child’s nutrition

Many parents are eager to acquire and use nutritional knowledge to benefit their child’s eating and weight. The reality is that a healthy child has an inborn ability to eat and grow in the way that’s best for him. The first and most important step you can do to help your child’s nutrition is to nurture this ability. In this series, you will learn how to give your child the gift of being able to naturally and easily eat nutritiously and maintain a healthy weight.

Charismatic people share two common characteristics: they display exceptional warmth and exceptional strength. Think of the rov who attracts a large following, the charismatic teacher with adoring students, and the charismatic classmate who is a natural leader of her many friends. The secret of their success is their ability to blend warmth and strength. A leader with only warmth will provide a shoulder to cry on, but without displaying strength, may leave the other person feeling hopeless and discouraged. A leader with only strength will establish structure and expectations, but may make others feel uncomfortable sharing emotions and vulnerability. An effective leader blends both warmth and strength, allowing self-expression within healthy limits.

Much like the effective leader, an effective parent helps her child thrive by blending warmth and strength. She provides leadership while simultaneously giving her child autonomy. A parent who displays leadership but lacks warmth in her parenting style will squash her child’s self-expression. A parent who allows for self-expression but lacks leadership will be overpowered by her child. Children require both parental leadership as well as warmth, for self-expression and healthy development. Studies have found that the parenting style which blends warmth and strength is superior as far as raising socially and emotionally healthy children[1]. This balanced approach is widely known as authoritative parenting.

Feeding is an act of parenting. The feeding style which best blends warmth and strength is the authoritative feeding approach. Through authoritative feeding, the parent can hone a child’s innate ability to regulate food. This approach blends leadership of the parent in planning meals with autonomy for the child in making food choices.

Dassi is a warm and devoted mother who lacks leadership in her feeding style. Her daughters, Tali, age seven, and Shira, age nine, come home from school at 4:00 p.m. and race off to play their newest game. Dassi follows them to the play room holding the snack she prepared so her busy children can eat. However, the two girls decline, barely glancing in her direction. Dassi backs off and busies herself with preparing a wholesome dinner.

At around 5:00, Tali and Shira experience intense hunger which is hard for them to ignore. Shira helps herself to a generous bowl of cereal and milk while Tali devours the birthday peckelah she received in school. At 6:00 p.m., Dassi pleads with Tali and Shira to join her for dinner, but they insist that they are not hungry and don’t like chicken. When the girls finally come to the table, they act jittery and take no interest in eating.

Frustrated and worried, Dassi offers alternate foods, and succeeds in getting her girls to eat five mouthfuls of yogurt which she spoon-feeds them before they leave the table. Convinced that her children have resigned from eating, Dassi moves on to helping her girls with homework and preparing them for bed. Much to her dismay, as she kisses them goodnight, they plead, “Ma, we’re hungry!” Frustrated and worried, Dassi scurries to the kitchen and fixes a neat snack for her poor, hungry children to have in bed.

Most likely, Dassi’s daughters were hungry when they arrived home from school. Like many other children, however, they preferred to play instead of settling down to eat. Hunger usually surfaces naturally in children every two to three hours. Children who get distracted with play may fail to eat at the early signs of hunger. This is concerning, because the child will not learn how to honor inner hunger cues which can lead to sporadic overeating and imbalanced eating habits. It is the parent’s responsibility to help a child get in touch with early hunger cues rather than allowing the child to go until they feel extreme hunger.

Ideally, Dassi should take leadership when her children come from school by bringing them to the table and keeping them company while they eat. In this environment, her children will feel settled and would likely notice their early feelings of hunger. This timely snack would then fill them enough to be comfortable while playing until dinner. If Dassi’s children refuse their snack and choose to play instead, her position would be to allow them to experience the natural feelings of hunger until dinner. They chose to miss their snack and should experience the natural consequences. By allowing her children to feel their hunger, Dassi is teaching them to assume more responsibility for feeding themselves adequately at snack and meal times. If Dassi’s children are allowed to snack whenever they want, they will not feel motivated to eat when she offers them food and they will not feel hungry and eat properly during mealtime. This will result in immature, imbalanced eating.

Offering alternate foods at dinner and delivering foods to her children in bed were also poor feeding tactics. By doing this, Dassi made their eating her problem. Serving food is her responsibility, but eating is theirs. As long as Dassi carries their slack, her children might not learn to take responsibility for their eating. Unchecked, Dassi will likely spend many frustrating years manipulating and persuading her children to eat.

Rather, Dassi should improve her feeding tactics to create an environment that is more conducive to her children eating well. This includes timing snack and dinner so the children arrive hungry but not starved and sitting with them at the table, creating a pleasant atmosphere. Additionally, Dassi should only allow her children to choose from the foods being served, and she should remind them that there is no eating until the next meal or snack time. If bedtime is long after dinner, Dassi may choose to implement a bedtime snack as part of her feeding routine.

Does this scenario sound familiar? Do your children tend to play for a long time without eating, only to ask for food when lying in bed or sitting in the car? If the answer is yes, your children are only recognizing their hunger when it’s intense or when they are settled without the distractions of play. To help your children, you can take leadership by settling them at the table when it’s time to eat so they can best connect with their hunger and appetite cues. Your children are capable of learning to like new foods, eating a variety of foods, making do with less than favorite foods, and eating nicely at the table. Taking leadership and adjusting your feeding style will go a long way in helping your children initiate these healthy eating habits on their own.

Brochi Stauber is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist whose goal is to make healthy living a lifestyle reality for individuals and families. In her practice, Brochi combines clinical nutritional knowledge with an understanding of the behavioral science of food, enabling clients to sustain healthy habits which benefit both mind and body. She can be reached at 732-731-9340 or satisfinutrition@gmail.com

Shira Francis is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in private practice in Chicago, IL. She provides guidance and counseling in relationships and self-development. Contact her at 773-971-3388 or shirafrancis@gmail.com


[1] Maccoby EE, Martin JA. Socialization in the context of the family: parent-child interaction. In: Mussen PHe, ed. Handbook of Child Psychology. New York, NY: Wiley; 1983:1-101. Baumrind D. Current patterns of parental authority. Developmental Psychology Monograph. 1971;4(1 pt.2):1-103.