As parents all of us at some point will find ourselves feeding a fussy eater. Most of us will have concerns about our child’s eating habits and whether or not they are getting enough to eat as well as enough nutrients. The thing is, children want to eat, but sometimes it can appear as though they don’t want to eat. They start refusing new foods and even refusing foods that they have liked previously. They might throw tantrums when asked to finish their meal or even just to come and sit at the table. Whilst it is completely normal for children to have periods of fussiness while they are learning to eat and enjoy new foods, focusing on creating a positive feeding environment can help your fussy eater to feel safe when exploring new foods.
So how do we create a positive environment when feeding our fussy eater?
When feeding a fussy eater and focusing on a positive feeding environment I suggest parents follow the Division of Responsibility which is part of the Satter Feeding Dynamics Model by Ellyn Satter. Ellyn is a dietitian and family therapist and has spent the past 50 years working with fussy eaters and researching child feeding dynamics.
The Division of Responsibility is a framework that assigns different responsibilities to both the parent and the child when it comes to feeding.
As the parent you are responsible for the WHAT, WHEN and WHERE of feeding
- WHAT – you choose and prepare a variety of foods. Offer both foods that your child prefers alongside foods they are still learning to like or that are new to them.
- WHEN – Provide structured meals and snacks. Allow enough time in between meals and snacks that your child will come to the table hungry with an appetite (around 2-3 hours for small children).
- WHERE – Make eating times pleasant. Children love to sit and eat with their parents and other trusted family members. They are more likely to feel comfortable around new foods if they see another family member happily eating that food. Talk about your day or something else other than the food. Enjoy your meal and allow your child to enjoy theirs without any pressure to eat certain foods.
Your child is responsible for HOW MUCH and WHETHER OR NOT they eat at all
- HOW MUCH – This is all about trusting in your child’s natural ability to self-regulate. From birth we all have the internal drive to instinctively eat as much or as little as we need to grow. If we give our children the opportunity to remain in tune with their natural sensations of hunger, appetite and satiety, it will stay with them for their lifetime.
- WHETHER OR NOT TO EAT – Once again this comes back to trust. Trusting your child to know whether or not they need food at that particular meal or snack. If meals and snacks remain structured (the parent’s responsibility) and there are options presented that your child likes, if they choose not to eat at that particular time we should honour that and allow them to become hungry for the next scheduled meal.
The two underlying themes surrounding the Division of Responsibility are those of leadership and autonomy. As the parent you are showing leadership by providing structure, support and opportunities to learn about new foods. We encourage the child to display autonomy to give them a sense of control around feeding and to build trust within the feeding relationship.
The above recommendations are specific for children from 1 years of age through to adolescents. For infants under 1 the guidelines change slightly, you can find more information on this here.
This way of looking at feeding a fussy eater can be easier said than done. A lot of families can face a lot of hurdles when it comes to implementing this in their home. Whether it be from existing personal beliefs, pushback from family members (both immediate and extended) and also the pressure we face daily from the media and social media telling us what our kids should and should not be eating. If you would like to learn more about this framework you can go to the Ellyn Satter Institute here.
I have also personally completed further training to assist families in implementing this framework, if you’d like some help introducing this concept at home you can find out about my services here.
Chelsea is a mum of two and a university trained nutritionist. She works with families to help combat fussy eating and develop a positive relationship with food. She is passionate about a balanced approach to nutrition and believes all food is there to be enjoyed. You can work with Chelsea here or follow her on Facebook and Instagram for more helpful tips and advice.