We’re going to go out on a limb here, and say that there is a ‘best’ way to approach feeding kids. In fact, our passion for teaching parents and professionals about this is what gets us out of bed each day. The philosophy we share is called ‘Responsive Feeding’. It is not so much a list of rules as a way of thinking about feeding children.
Researchers know that, given the right environment, children can regulate their own energy intake. This sounds complicated but it’s actually a pretty simple (and powerful) idea: If we can trust children to make their own decisions about what and how much they eat, they will eat in response to internal cues rather than for external reasons, like pleasing us or because they feel sad. Making eating decisions for internal reasons is at the very heart of a positive relationship with food, protecting against weight dysregulation, eating disorders and picky eating.
Feeding expert, Ellyn Satter, helped raise the profile of the importance of self-regulation through her ‘Division of Responsibilty’ model. This involves the parent deciding when and where meals happen, as well as being in charge of what food is served. The child, on the other hand, is in charge of what they take to eat (from the foods made available by the adult at structured eating times) and even whether they eat at all. This way of feeding helps nurture self-regulation because children can tune into how their body feels and eat accordingly, without this process being interrupted by adults pressuring them to eat (or stop eating!)
At the heart of Responsive Feeding is the child’s autonomy. When we say we value autonomy, we mean that the child has the right to decide whether or not they try a food; we don’t need to over-rule them by persuading them to eat three more bites. We have respect for them and believe that if their autonomy is compromised if we make them eat or interact with foods when they are not ready to. We wouldn’t ask an adult to eat another spoonful of their dinner because it would be hugely disrespectful – why are children different?
Parents who practice Responsive Feeding value the feeding relationship – they think that children learn best when they feel connected to caring adults who engage with them during meal and snack times, eating together wherever possible. Of course, mealtimes are often a little stressful or rushed, that’s just reality, but feeding responsively means putting positive time with your child ahead of short term feeding goals like making them lick a disliked food.
Many very common feeding strategies are not responsive. For example, bribing children to eat new foods, praising them for eating all of their meal or telling them they can’t have dessert until they have eaten however much of their main course. We know that parents use these tactics because they are just trying to make things better. Read our article on blame and picky eating to find out more about our thoughts on this. Our programme for parents – Your Feeding Team – draws on Responsive Feeding principles to help you help your child the gentle way. We know that children need lots and lots of positive experiences with food in order to build their eating confidence. We also know that every time they feel that their autonomy is compromised, their progress is impeded.