A child is born with strong attunement to cues of appetite, hunger and fullness, and therefore will naturally eat well if raised in a supportive food environment. A mother’s role is to nurture this inborn ability by creating the right environment. Beginning with infancy, emotional development evolves in stages, and understanding these stages can help a mother nurture her child physically and emotionally so her child can thrive. In the following articles, we describe a healthy parent-child dynamic as it applies to ideal feeding so that the mother can support her child’s natural ability to eat and grow well.
Two-and-a-half-year-old Shimmy is completely absorbed in his blocks and mentchies. His mother, Rivky, softly reminds her son that he is hungry and gently invites him to dinner, which he declines. Rivky argues that Shimmy must be hungry since he hasn’t eaten in five hours, but Shimmy states with certainty that he is not hungry at all. Exasperated, Rivky surrenders, and Shimmy gets back to work building his tower.
Soon, wails are coming from the playroom. Rivky finds an enraged Shimmy kicking the remnants of a collapsed tower of blocks and throwing his mentchies. Rivky glances at her watch – it’s nearly bedtime and Shimmy hasn’t eaten dinner. She tries to explain to Shimmy that his toys haven’t wronged him; rather, he is hungry and tired which makes him feel sad. Once again, Rivky urges him to consider eating spaghetti and meatballs, but Shimmy raises his eyebrows at his mother’s nonsense and only gets angrier.
“Yichee mentchie, yichee mommy, yichee spaghetti and meatballs,” Rivky hears him mutter. “Oh dear,” Rivky thinks. “He is starting his downward spiral.” She scurries to bring spaghetti and meatballs to the playroom, hoping to sneak some food into Shimmy’s mouth before he turns into a monster of a child. She feeds him with one hand while distracting him by rebuilding his tower with her other. After Shimmy swallows a few mouthfuls, he realizes that he is eating meatballs off his mother’s fork, and spits it out on the floor with a look of disgust. “Yichhhhh, these are bumpy!” he cries. After pleading with Shimmy to try another bite, Rivky gives in and makes him the usual crust-free-peanut-butter-jelly-sandwich-cut-into-triangles.
If this scene looks familiar, you’re not alone. Feeding a toddler is a challenging task. Since this is the stage where a toddler is developing autonomy, he will likely yell “no” and throw tantrums as a way to assert himself as an individual. This is a normal part of emotional development. It is understandable that a toddler will make demands and be uncooperative at mealtime as he asserts his individual food preferences.
With regard to physical development, the toddler is growing more slowly than the infant, so his eating may naturally slow down as well. In additional to eating less, the toddler is typically more skeptical about foods than the non-discriminant baby. The toddler may be upset by unfamiliar lumps or new textures in his food, and his diet might consist of just a few “safe foods,” foods he feels comfortable eating. An additional challenge is that a toddler is easily distracted from eating by his love of play and exploration. It’s common for a toddler to take a few bites of food and run off to play, or resist coming to the table in the first place if he is engaged in play.
The common pitfall for parents during this stage is either being too permissive or too controlling with their toddler. Too permissive is allowing the child to snack whenever he wants and accommodating his demands for alternate meals. Too controlling is demanding that the child eat specific foods or specific amounts even if he doesn’t want to. The job of the parent is to create an environment that strikes the healthy balance between permissiveness and control that encourages a child to try new foods while still respecting the child’s preferences.
In the above scenario, Rivky is a kind and well-meaning mother giving her toddler too much authority. This is a classic example of a parent who is being too permissive in response to the child’s demand for autonomy. Ideally, Rivky can create an environment that encourages her child to try new foods while still respecting his preferences. To accomplish this, Rivky should follow “Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding” (sDOR),where a parent provides limits by being in charge of the what, when and where of feeding, and the child exercises control by being in charge of the how much and whetherof eating.
Practically speaking, this would mean that Rivky decides what to serve for dinner by planning meals considerate to child’s preferences without overly catering to his demands. She should always serve at least one food that is familiar to her son so that he isn’t stuck without anything to eat.
At the same time, Rivky should occasionally serve foods that are challenging for Shimmy to eat. Since children are more likely to push themselves to try new foods if a familiar food is present as well, Shimmy is more likely to try new foods if there is a safe food on the table at the same time. A familiar food decreases anxiety and it helps children relax enough to experiment with something new.
As part of Rivky’s responsibility as a parent, she is to decide when and whereto serve dinner, timing it so that her son begins eating when he is hungry, but not starving. For most children, this will be about three hours after the previous meal or snack. At dinnertime, Rivky should be firm and insist that Shimmy stop playing and come to the table. Once he is settled at the table, in the presence of food and without the distractions of play, Shimmy is more likely to connect with his hunger and eat well.
While Shimmy is eating, Rivky shouldn’t direct or comment on his eating at all. This would be distracting and upsetting to a child and may hinder their ability to eat well. Comments such as, “C’mon, try some of this meat loaf,” or “Are you sure you’re still hungry? You’ve eaten so much already!” are pressuring to a child and can contribute to developing tendencies to over- or under-eat. Pressuring comments create a disruption that distracts a child from his natural, yet subtle appetite and fullness cues.
A more balanced approach would be for Rivky to say, “Please come join me at table. We are having spaghetti, meatballs, salad and rolls. You can eat what you like – but make sure you’re full, since there is no eating until bedtime snack.” With this, she brings him away from distractions to a pleasant dinner table, serves familiar along with unfamiliar food, and doesn’t pressure him into eating anything. She supports him by sitting and eating with him and she sets an expectation that he is to take the meal seriously. This helps, because Rivky has now created a setting conducive to her son eating well.
Many parents find it helpful to serve a bedtime snack when using a division of responsibility in feeding at dinner. This is because parents may worry that their child will go to bed hungry and therefore resort to pressuring their child to eat by coercing, forcing or bribing their child or catering to demands for alternate meals. Parents are less likely to succumb to these poor feeding tactics if they know there will be another eating opportunity for their child before bed. A bedtime snack should be something basic (not too exciting) such as rice cakes with peanut butter.
By implementing this feeding approach with her toddler, besides benefitting his eating, Rivky will also enhance his emotional development, because she’s helping him become aware of his physical and emotional needs. At this point, Shimmy doesn’t sense his tiredness and hunger, so he confuses those uncomfortable physical feelings with emotional distress, i.e. anger and sadness. His mother can help him identify his feelings by consistently taking him away from his toys and bringing him to the table when his hunger is just beginning to surface. She can also help him become more attuned to his fatigue by bringing him to bed when he starts to feel tired.
Contrary to infancy, when a parent helps her child identify these needs by paying attention to his cues and tending to them, in toddlerhood the parent guides her toddler in making these distinctions. By doing so, the parent is teaching the toddler to identify his emotions and physical needs, and satisfy each of them accordingly. As time goes on, the toddler will be able to better express what is bothering him on his own and tend to his physical and emotional needs accordingly.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is the common challenge of a child who wants to eat all day. It is true that some children will naturally have a stronger interest in food than others, but what some may not know is that appetite often correlates to nutritional needs, so a child with an increased appetite may actually require more food to meet his inherent energy and growth patterns.
Modern culture promotes a diet culture where calorie restrictions for the pursuit of a lean body is popular. Many parents today are strongly influenced by diet culture and get concerned if their toddler is chubby or likes to eat. In truth, chubbinessin a toddler is often not a problem, nor an indication of the child’s future weight status.* It is also normal for a child to act excited and very interested in food or sweets. The best thing a parent can do at this point is relax and support their child’s natural growth and interest in food.
Commonly, when parents themselves are restricting calorie intake as a way to lose weight, they may project this energy on their toddler and be overly concerned with his body size and food intake. Although the mother has good intentions, and controlling her child’s eating seems reasonable to her, this intrusiveness can interfere with her child’s natural ability to self-regulate food.
When a child’s food is restricted, his hearty appetite can escalate into an unhealthy food obsession as he is denied the food he wants or the amounts he wants to eat. The food obsession either starts right away, or happens when the child is older and more resourceful. Food preoccupation, sneaking and stealing food are common outcomes of food restriction in a child.
For example, a playgroup morah recalled a student who would crawl under the table to eat the crumbs and fallen pieces of her classmate’s snacks, since he was deprived of these tasty foods at home. Studies have found that children whose parents restrict their food intake are more likely to overeat and gain excessive weight. This is why it is so important for a parent to strike the right balance of setting limits while not being too controlling of their toddlers eating.
In light of the above, how can parents set limits on nosh in a way that doesn’t fuel deprivation and candy obsessions in their child? What should parents do if their child asks for food when he is bored, stressed or lonely? These questions will be answered in the next article, as we address the topic of emotional eating in children.
Brochi Stauber is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist whose goal is to make healthy living a lifestyle reality for individuals and families. She combines clinical nutritional knowledge with an understanding of the behavioral science of food, enabling clients to sustain healthy habits. Contact her at 732-731-9340 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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 email@example.com.
*In the first article of this series, we discussed how to distinguish excessive eating from normal eating and abnormal versus healthy weight gain in a child. For a copy of this article, visit http://yated.com/feeding-is-parenting/
 Faith MS, Scanlon KS, Birch LL, Francis LA, Sherry B. Parent-Child Feeding Strategies and their Relationships to Child Eating and Weight Status. Obesity Research. 2004;12(11):1711–1722.