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Children, Food and School… Are there any simple strategies?

14 February 2020

Establishing healthy eating patterns with children as they enter school can be really challenging. While school can bring a welcome routine for families, it can also bring stress and anxiety at either end of the day – and this in itself can make it difficult for children to eat. Potentially bearing this in mind – that stress and anxiety can have a huge impact on a child’s willingness or ability to eat – can be really helpful for parents to remember. If we can keep mealtimes calm, then kids are more likely to eat. But if we are hurried and trying to force out kids to eat, then it can discourage them to eat because it makes them more anxious.

For a moment, just think about times where you have felt anxious or nervous. Have you wanted to eat?

 

One of the basic ideas that is really helpful for parents in reducing anxiety in feeding their kids is The Division of Responsibility, developed by Ellyn Satter. This philosophy helps parents take leadership with the what, where, and when of feeding, and allows kids to determine the how much and even whether to eat of what you’ve provided.

 

The basics of the Division of Responsibility include:

The parent’s jobs are to:

  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • Step-by-step, show your child by example how to behave at family mealtime.
  • Be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without catering to likes and dislikes.
  • Not let your child have food or beverages (except for water) between meal and snack times.
  • Let your child grow into the body that is right for him.

Part of your feeding job is to trust your child to . . .  

  • Eat the amount he needs.
  • Learn to eat the food you eat.
  • Grow predictably in the way that is right for him. 
  • Learn to behave well at mealtime. 

 

When it comes to Family meals that perhaps aren’t working so well, it can be helpful to focus on a few key things:

  1. Change the HOW of family meals first; worry about the what later
    1. Start with regular meals and snacks using the foods you are eating now
    2. Eat food you enjoy to eat – don’t try fancy food, just food you enjoy, that is simple, easy, nourishing
    3. All foods are ok – pizza, spaghetti bolognaise, nuggets, canned peaches…. Just arrange to have them ready at mealtimes so you can ALL sit down together as a family. Modelling eating together is so valuable for your children
    4. You can put all the food in the middle of the table and allow your kids to choose what they want. The priority is having a structured mealtime, i.e. meals together as a family at the table, at a set time
  2. Use snacks to support mealtime
    1. Snacks should be limited to set times between meals so that children can be hungry at the main meal. There can’t be free access to snacks otherwise children will not be hungry at the main meal
    2. The only fluid available should be water or milk
    3. Consider snacks to be little meals, not just treats
    4. Do include treats such as biscuits and chips at meals and snacks on occasions – don’t try and go without them

 

Importantly, avoid pressure with eating and mealtimes. Children are fantastic at self-regulating their intake. They intuitively know when they are full and can stop eating. If we override this, kids stop trusting their hunger and fullness cues and it can lead to overeating issues in later life.

This can be really hard for parents, especially those of us brought up to “finish all on our plates”. But we live in a world of plentiful food, so we can allow our kids to trust their innate wisdom when it comes to food, and we don’t need to tempt them with the reward of dessert just to finish their dinner (or any other meal). This just serves to alter their relationship with food further and make them think that dessert and sweets is the most important thing.

 

For some more information on establishing good eating relationships in children, or help with fussy eating see:

https://www.ellynsatterinstitute.org