Pregnancy Articles

How to Raise Natural Eaters--and End Dinner-Table Fights Forever

The No-Nonsense Way to Teach Kids to Eat Right

Have you ever stopped to consider how a baby boy knows to cry when he is hungry? Have you questioned how a newborn girl knows to stop nursing when she is full? These tiny people are demonstrating what is known as "natural satiety," or the body's innate ability to regulate fullness and energy needs. Almost every person is born with the natural ability to maintain a healthy weight, but as time passes, we begin to ignore this important capability.

Positive parental involvement is necessary when it comes to feeding children and promoting emotionally healthy approaches to eating. Raising kids to enjoy healthy foods and have a balanced relationship with food is no easy task, and the tactic of parenting to support natural satiety is even harder. The strategy is best presented by the eating and feeding authority, Ellyn Satter, a registered dietitian and child psychotherapist. Her "division of responsibility" may initially sound unconventional and perhaps even unhealthy; however, upon further review her techniques make perfect sense. Her recommendations are also supported by a substantial amount of research which demonstrates that children have a healthier relationship with food and a healthier body weight as teens and adults, when raised by caregivers who optimize their child's natural hunger cues.

Who's in charge of what?
The parents and the child have distinct roles when it comes to feeding and eating responsibilities.
  • As the parent or caregiver, you are in charge of when the family eats, where the family eats, and what the family is served.

  • The child is in charge of deciding how much (if any) food is eaten.
So as you proceed, we encourage you to keep an open mind and evaluate where you may be crossing the lines of responsibility when feeding your child.

The Responsibilities of the Parents and Caregivers
By teaching your child how to provide nourishment for the body and providing your child with nutritious foods and a healthy eating environment, your child will learn to take responsibility for his own healthy eating choices. Here are some tips to help.

When to eat, Where to eat, What to serve:
  • Plan the timing of three meals and up to three snacks throughout the day. If your child does not eat one meal, keep in mind that those planned snacks will help ensure that your child is meeting nutrient needs. Do not allow grazing between these planned meals and planned snack times.

  • All meals and snacks should be eaten at the dining room or kitchen tables. Say so-long to eating on the couch, in front of the television or computer, in bed, or in the car. Insist that your child show up for all meals, even if he says, "I'm not hungry." Once in awhile, a special family meal or snack in front of the TV is acceptable, but it's important to maintain the regularity of meals eaten at the table.

  • Support an eating environment void of noisy distractions. Turn off the television and radio during snack and mealtime. Do not allow cell phones, iPods or any other electronic devices at the table. (That also goes for you, Mom!)

  • Keep the eating environment pleasant for all. Use family mealtime to unwind and talk about highlights from the day. It is the perfect opportunity to connect with your child.

  • Plan and prepare nutritious meals and snacks. Offer your child healthy foods from every food group: grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy, and meat and beans. For more information on kids nutrition, check out the BabyFit Kids Nutrition Resource Center or

  • Use healthy and tasty cooking methods like baking, broiling, grilling, roasting, steaming, and sauteing to prepare your child's food.

  • Offer a variety of foods to your child so new flavors and textures can be sampled. Try new recipes. Look for new ideas on how to serve healthy foods in fun, creative ways that your child will enjoy. Let your child be involved in preparing foods.

  • Don't become a short-order cook. Let the child choose what to eat only from the foods offered on the table. Offer some family food favorites, as well as new food adventures. "Cooking to order" at each meal will not foster a healthy environment in which a child will learn to be open to trying new foods.

  • Offer so-called "forbidden foods" only a few times throughout the week. This will lessen their appeal. While transitioning to an environment that supports natural satiety, your children may overindulge on these foods at first, but they will eventually become less exciting.

  • Never praise your child for finishing a meal and do not force your child to be a member of the clean plate club. This only teaches a child to link food and eating to please and adult, thus giving food emotional power.

  • You are your child's greatest example. Role model healthy eating habits and appropriate table manners. Use phrases like "please" and "no, thank you" when speaking to other diners.

  • Do not reward, bribe or punish your child with food. (For example: Never say "if you finish your homework, you can have a brownie.") Remember that food is to nourish the body. Food can not solve relationship problems, ease loneliness, calm nerves, or relieve boredom. When adults use food to reward or punish, they may be teaching the child to become an emotional eater.

  • When dealing with a picky eater, don't be tempted to coax or bribe your child into eating. Be patient. Establishing healthy eating habits takes a lifetime. Continue to offer your child new foods, but pair it on the table with foods you know will be accepted. This way, your child can feel free to try the unfamiliar food, along with the favorites.

  • Offer new foods more than once and in different forms. It may take up to 10 exposures before your child accepts a new food.
The Responsibilities of the Child
How much, and whether to eat:

It is up to the child to decide how much to eat from the foods offered at the table, and whether to eat at all. That is, kids get to select from the healthy foods offered, and then decide how much to eat. They get to decide what to eat first and whether to eat anything. Remember, there should be absolutely no coaxing or bribing from an adult.

Case Study #1:

Think about the message being conveyed to your child when you say, "Nathan, you can't have cake for dessert until you eat your green beans." This tactic gives power to the cake. It teaches the child that the cake is better, or more prized, than the green beans. The child is taught by the adult that green beans are less desired than the cake because the green beans are being used as a punishment and the cake is the ultimate reward.

Case Study #2:

Children are masters at manipulation, especially with food. And parents often express the fear that their child isn't eating enough or will only eat one food--applesauce, for example. This one food becomes the power food. No matter what is prepared at mealtime the child refuses to eat it, kicking and screaming until the parents give in and the power food, applesauce, is provided. Every meal is a battleground. Situations like this are not healthy for the child or parent. Realize that a child's body will not allow starvation.

Our bodies know how much we need if we eat in a way that fosters our natural satiety. When parents hold fast to their feeding responsibilities, there are no power struggles. Rather quickly, the child realizes that her applesauce isn't coming and she is no longer in control of the foods served in the home. She begins eating what is served at meal and snack times to satisfy her hunger and nourish her body appropriately.

To make a true commitment to optimize your child's natural hunger cues, you must let go of the jobs that are NOT your responsibility. Appropriate feeding is built on trust. As a parent, educate yourself on ways to plan, prepare and serve healthy meals and snacks. Then trust your child's ability to eat and grow in the way nature intended.

For excellent resources on the topic of feeding children, check out the books by Ellyn Satter:

Child of Mine, Feeding with Love and Good Sense

How to Get Your Kid to Eat, But Not Too Much

Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family

Your Child's Weight: Helping without Harming

Have you embraced these natural eating methods in your household? Will you try them?
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About The Author

Sarah Haan
Sarah is a registered dietitian with a bachelor's degree in dietetics from Michigan State University. She helps individuals adopt healthy lifestyles and manage their weight. An avid exerciser and cook, Sarah likes to run, lift weights and eat good food.

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