How to make your child a good eater
- We can’t make our children eat anything but we can support them in developing healthy habits.
- The way we feed our children is as important as what we feed them
- Be clear on the roles of the parent or carer and child in the feeding relationship.
When babies are very young and learning to eat solids, they are very clear about their intentions to eat – or not to eat – and there is not a lot we can do about it. They will clamp their mouths shut, turn their heads away and push or throw food away. As children get older, they often have other ways of showing us whether they want to eat or not, which can make mealtimes challenging and sometimes just plain unpleasant. A few key principles can help avoid food battles and support your child in establishing healthy eating patterns.
The information below is based on the best evidence we have for establishing healthy eating behaviours in children and reducing the risk of weight issues and eating disorders. (see also: ‘Is my child a healthy weight?’ and ‘How do I know if my child is eating too much or not enough?’).
The way we feed our children is as important as what we feed them
Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DoR) defines the roles of the parent or carer and child in the feeding relationship. It is introduced in: ’How do I know if my child is eating too much or not enough?’. Adhering to the DoR can be difficult at first, but clearly defined roles will mean calmer mealtimes. There will still be hiccups or speed bumps but understanding the DoR can take a lot of pressure off parents and help develop competent eaters. Here are the key jobs of the parent or carer and the child:
The parent or carer’s jobs with feeding 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.
- Avoid giving your child food or drinks between meals and snacks (except for water)
- Let your child grow into the body that is right for them.
Trust your child to…
- Eat the amount they need.
- Learn to eat the food you eat.
- Grow predictably in the way that is right for them.
- Learn to behave well at mealtimes.
In the long term, pressure to control food intake usually has the opposite effect to what’s intended
When parents or carers try to control children’s food intake, the child is likely to push back in the opposite direction. In other words, children tend to eat less when pressured to eat more, but eat more when they feel food is scarce.
The best thing we can do is let children decide how much they eat
It’s often hard to know how much food children need at any given moment, so the best thing we can do as parents and caregivers is to let them decide. The more we allow them work out how much food they need, the better they will be at responding to their body’s cues of hunger and fullness, which gives them a valuable tool for lifelong healthy eating.
One well-researched and widely accepted approach is The Division of Responsibility (DoR), developed by world-renowned child nutritionist, Ellyn Satter. If coercion, convincing and/or control has become the norm, it can be difficult to understand how another way of approaching feeding could help, but teh DoR approach makes feeding children much easier. When parents/carers do their job with feeding, the child can do their job of eating.
|Parent/Carer's Job||Child's Job|
Decide WHAT to serve
(while considering your child’s food preferences)
Decide WHEN the family eats
Decide WHERE the family eats
(ideally at a table)
Decide IF they will eat
(from what is served at meal or snack time)
Decide HOW MUCH to eat
(based on feelings of hunger and fullness)
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If you are concerned about your child’s food intake, eating behaviours, growth or nutrition-related health, contact a GP, paediatrician or Accredited Practising Dietitian who can provide a comprehensive assessment that considers your child’s medical history, eating patterns including mealtime experiences, physical activity and genetic factors.
Find an Accredited Practising Dietitian with experience in infant and child growth - https://dietitiansaustralia.org.au/find-an-apd/