Changing Colors: The Blog of Spectrum Pediatrics

February 12, 2018

Happy Mealtimes and Healthy Eaters: Four Things Every Parent Should Know

By: Jamie Hinchey, MS, CCC-SLP and Heidi Moreland, MS, CCC-SLP, BCS-S, CLC

“Isn’t my job to make them eat healthy?”: It is often forgotten that children and parents both have their own roles to play during mealtimes. Ellyn Satter describes the Division of Responsibility (sDOR), which breaks down the different roles between parents and their child.

  • Parents control the what, when, and where of feeding
  • Children determine the whether to eat and how much.
  • Providing limits while being supportive with food can be a difficult balance for families, but it is a worthwhile goal
  • Children should be allowed to explore food, but also able comfortable with saying “no”.
  • It is okay for caregivers to say “no” to certain behaviors and request and set certain boundaries during mealtimes, especially as your child matures.
  • Be intentional about allowing them to develop independence with self-regulation.
  • It may be helpful to focus on something else during the mealtime instead of paying too much attention to your child’s eating. This could be a great time to talk about your day, focus on building communication opportunities, or using the mealtime as a social gathering for the family.

Restricting “Bad” Foods + Pressure To Eat “Good”: “Does it add up to healthy eating?”: As a parent, you want your child to grow and develop. Part of this is can be accomplished by eating healthy and nutritional foods. Although you may want to push the “healthy” foods on your child during mealtimes, this pressure to eat certain foods can cause a decrease in interest. In fact,

  • Take a second look at labels: Look past advertisements such as “low sugar”, “fat free”, and “low carb”. You may be surprised at which foods might be labeled “bad”, but are full of nutritional value.
  • Model healthy eating: Children learn the most about food through the direct experience of observing others eating while eating (Savage, Fisher, & Birch, 2007). That means it is more meaningful to model a healthy diet for your child rather than it is to restrict “bad” foods.
  • Avoid the reverse effect: Research has found that when parents restricted certain foods, the children’s intake of those foods actually increased and put them at risk for excessive weight gain (Birch, 2014).
  • Trust your child to eat the right amount – they know better than you do: Katja Rowell shares in her book, Love me Feed Me, that when children are allowed to eat to “treat” foods such as high sugar foods, they are able to respond to body cues that regulate when their body needs to eat and when they are full. However, when adults interfere by restricting that type of food, it inhibits their ability to learn and respond to cues about how much their body needs.

The Hidden Danger of “Is This On My Diet?”: In today’s society, it is difficult to watch television, read a magazine, or go to the grocery store without hearing about a new diet or a “health fad”. This makes it almost impossible for anyone to feel good about food they are buying or eating.

This may feel like a healthy change, but can it actually be causing more harm. Surprisingly, emotions around food can have a number of negative consequences.

  • The way you think and feel about food impacts not only your enjoyment of food, but also your absorption of nutrients (Crum, 2014.)
  • Your feelings about foods impact family discussions about food. Many parents find that negative or conflicting emotions about food can make it difficult for them to talk about food in positive ways in front of their children (Lytle et.al. 1997).
  • Even at a young age, children are able to pick up on the discussion around food. Although they may not understand complex nutrition talk, they are aware of the focus on “unhealthy” vs. “healthy” foods and conflicting emotions around foods. As they process those emotions through their own lens, this may result in conflicting emotions around food and their bodies. For example, when the focus is “healthy” or “unhealthy” food, children may feel pressure to eat a certain food or feel ashamed for wanting to eat a “treat”.
  • Instead of focusing on discussing or dissecting food in front of your child, take that focus into meal planning and serve a variety of healthy foods that you enjoy.
  • Use mealtimes to have conversations with your child. You can talk about foods you enjoy. If it is interesting, you may also want to talk about how to cook the food, where the food came from, or different types of food that are similar.

Eating Together/Social: “It’s Time for Dinner”: Children develop early patterns around mealtimes through social interactions surrounding feeding (Savage, Fisher, & Birch, 2007). The Family Dinner Project, a nonprofit organization operating from the offices at Project Zero at Harvard University, lists many benefits to having a family mealtime. What they found is that even if it isn’t always possible, it is important to try to make time within your weekly routine to share a mealtime with your child.

  • Children who are part of regular family mealtimes have lower rates of substance abuse, higher self-esteem, and lower rates of obesity and eating disorders.
  • Family mealtimes provide an opportunity for kids to watch their parents and siblings eat, which can provide a foundation for more adventurous eating later
  • A study by Brown & Ogden (2004) found that family modeling has a more lasting influence than control at meals.
  • Family mealtimes allow children to be a part of a routine, see food as an enjoyable, social opportunity, and build exposure to a variety of foods, even if they don’t eat them the first time they are served.
  • Mealtimes aren’t just about nutrients begin consumed. They can also be about caring for others through preparing food, participating in social interactions through staying at the table and being part of conversation, and contributing to the family by completing mealtime chores.

Sources:

Brown, R. and Ogden, J. Children’s eating attitudes and behaviour: a study of the modelling and control theories of parental influence. Health Educ. Res. (2004) 19 (3):261-271. doi: 10.1093/her/cyg040

Crum, Alia and Corbin, William. ” Mind over Milkshakes: Mindset, Not Just Nutritents, Determine Ghrelin Response” Health Psychology (2011): 424-429

Rollins, Brandi Y., Loken, Eric, and Leann L. Birch. ” Effects of restriction on children’s intake differ by child temperament, food reinforcement, and parent’s chronic use of restriction” Appetite ( 2014): 31-39.

Rowell, Katja, MD and Jenny McGlothlin (2015). Extreme Picky Eating.

Rowell, Katja, MD (2012). Love Me, Feed Me. A Parent’s Guide to Ending the Worry about Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More. Family Feeding Dynamics LLC. St. Paul, MN.

Savage, Jennifer S., Jennifer Orlet Fisher, and Leann L. Birch. “Parental influence on eating behavior: conception to adolescence.” The Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35.1 (2007): 22-34.

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