No, that is not your job. Yes, children and parents both have their own roles to play during mealtimes, but parents often get caught up in the idea that their job is to make sure their child eats what is on their plate. The Division of Responsibility, created by Ellyn Satter, breaks down the different roles between parents and their children surrounding food. The parents are in control of the what, when, and where, while the children determine whether to eat, and if so, how much they will eat.
This sounds much easier said than done, right?
Although it may be hard to let go of the thought that you are not in charge of how much your child eats, by doing this, you are setting your child up for a long-term, positive relationship with food. When children are allowed to choose how much they will eat during a mealtime, their bodies are given an opportunity to learn how much they need for their “engine to run”. This is also known as self-regulation. You are supporting your child as they learn what their bodies need to make them feel good. There may be times where your child eats 1 bite for breakfast, and this can be very stressful. Remember, your job is to support your child and at the next meal, control the what, when, and where. We know that kid’s bodies regulate over the course of 24 hours, so as your child builds hunger from a small meal, their body learns that at the next meal or the following day, they may need to eat a little more.
Shouldn’t there be limits at mealtimes? YES
It is okay, and helpful, to provide limits while being supportive. This can be a difficult balance for families, but it is a worthwhile goal. Children should be allowed to explore food, but also be comfortable with saying “no” when they are either full, or not interested at the moment. It is okay for caregivers to say “no” to certain behaviors and requests, especially as your child matures. Boundaries during mealtimes can be helpful for a child who is just learning to eat. This may look like using a visual timer or providing 3 options of different foods on the table for your child to choose. It may also 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.