In my last post, I spoke about the new feeding and eating plan that I discovered after taking my overweight son (who also has autism) to visit a clinical nutritionist. I discussed some of the principles of the plan, and how it shed light on my own struggles around eating and weight loss. Today, I’m going to discuss the plan in the context of feeding children.
The plan I’m referring to is based on the Feeding Dynamics and Eating Competence models developed by the Ellyn Satter Institute. I should point out that this plan is for ANY CHILD, not just the overweight child. But since that is the issue our family is dealing with, it’s the one I’m going to focus on here.
The basic premise of the program is that children are born hardwired to eat what they need: no more and no less. This immediately reminded me of my days as a La Leche League leader, when I would counsel anxious new breastfeeding mums to let their babies take the lead on when to eat, how much to eat, and how often. So I knew this premise to be true. What I didn’t appreciate was that it continues throughout childhood and into adulthood providing we (the people doing the feeding) don’t screw it up.
We screw it up by imposing our own values and anxieties around food on our children. We fuss over the ones who don’t eat much, and we chide those who eat a lot. We try to force the picky ones to eat “just a bite” of new foods, while we deem a category of favourite foods to be “bad for you” for the overweight kids. We let them eat in front of computers or TVs, so they don’t focus on their body’s signals of satiety. Or we don’t feed them often enough, triggering anxiety about when they will next be fed and how long they will have to go hungry, which leads to overeating when they finally get some food (a smart evolutionary strategy gone awry). We don’t eat together as families much anymore, so our kids are not exposed to new foods (and here’s the part that nobody told me: sitting in front of food is the first step, a real honest-to-goodness step, in learning to like new foods. That “just one bite” that we were told to insist on? That is much further down the list of steps, and even further for kids with sensory issues).
So, here it is in a nutshell: Satter calls it “the division of responsibility”. I, the parent, am in charge of the what, where, and when of eating and my school-age children are responsible for the whether and how much.
I make sure they eat regularly (no more than 3 hours between offerings), that they sit at the table without distractions (other than my stimulating company, or that of the rest of the family), and that they are offered foods from each of the four groups Satter lists as essential for growing kids: protein, carbohydrate, fruit or vegetable, and dairy (that last one assumes, of course, that there are no dairy allergies, and the book gives details on how to accommodate those). And here’s the fun part: make the food delicious! Cook with fat, sprinkle butter or sugar on those veggies, make everything a joy to eat. Provide a well-balanced offering of delights, and watch mealtime become fun again, not just for those who eat it, but for the one who is preparing it too!
The kids are responsible for deciding whether or not to show up for the meal (understanding there is no eating in between meal and snacktimes), what foods on the table to eat, and how much of any food on the table to eat (the exception being dessert, the only rule for which is that there is only one serving per person at the table).
No rules about how long the kids must stay at the table – if they are wanting to get down from the table and/or they are starting to act up, then they are done eating and we need to respect that so they learn to understand what that feeling means.
No rules about eating vegetables before dessert – they can eat their dessert at any time during the meal. It’s only one serving, so it won’t “ruin their dinner”, and they may learn all on their own that it’s nicer to save the sweet stuff for last (or they may not, and that is okay).
No rules about “trying a bite”, no matter how picky your eater. The steps to getting to eat a new food are:
- look at the food,
- be close to the food,
- touch the food,
- play with or manipulate the food,
- touch the food to the mouth,
- taste the food,
- chew the food,
- swallow the food.
There might even be some more in-between steps in the case of kids with sensory issues. The idea is that, if they are continually exposed to the variety of foods your family enjoys, and there is no pressure on them, they will slowly (or quickly, each child is unique) go through the steps and, when they are older, will learn that new foods are nothing to be afraid of.
No rules about eating one of everything on the table: if they make an entire meal out of bread and butter, let it be. They will eventually round it out – maybe not that day, but most likely that week – and even fresh, white bread slathered in butter gets boring if that’s all you eat every day. Their bodies will soon crave what they need to balance it out, and you’ll make sure it is on the table when they do.
Finally, no forbidden foods. Regularly (reasonably often) offer cookies for a snack (with a glass of milk and some fruit on the table). Let your kid have as many cookies as they want, while they are at the table. Have potato chips on hot dog night, and make sure there is enough for everyone to get their fill. If your child has learned not to trust that these foods will be available, he or she may begin by scarfing down as many as can fit in their tummies…but eventually they will trust that such foods will be offered, and no limits will be imposed, and this can greatly reduce that chance of eating disorders, or even just the routine binge-and-guilt cycle that too many adults (including myself) get sucked into. It will also make these foods lose their “forbidden fruit” appeal, which goes a long way to healthy eating habits in the future.
I have to say, that when I first started reading I found myself sliding into a pit of guilt. My son was overweight, and to add to the guilt of having let him get that way, I was now faced with just how badly I had screwed up the feeding of my children over the years. On the checklist following “why is my child overweight?” I ticked off pretty much every single item. Regular mealtimes? nope. Eating at the table? nope. Division of responsibility? nope. I realized that I had basically tossed my kids into the deep end of the feeding and eating swimming pool without giving them the proper foundation. No wonder my kid was fat.
How did I get there? I’ll answer that in my next post. I’ll also be blogging about instituting the plan (which happens in stages) and discuss our challenges and triumphs. These posts will be tagged under “Feeding Therapy” if you wish to follow along (or read about some previous tried-and-failed plans).
For now, I would encourage anyone in charge of feeding kids, or anyone who is struggling with their own eating and weight issues, to visit the Ellyn Satter Institute website. I have bought and read two of their books: Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming and Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and I would recommend either of them.