Saving your family’s sanity at mealtimes

Feeding children can be challenging. As a parent or caregiver, you may wonder how it’s humanly possible to balance all the aspects of food and eating: kid’s nutrition needs, appetite, food likes and dislikes; as well as your time, energy and sanity. If battle lines are drawn at your dinner table, you’re not alone.

“I can’t get Angie to eat anything green,” says her mom, Maggie. “It’s very frustrating, but I’m not giving up. She needs vegetables for her health.” Struggles like this between parents and children are more about child development and parenting than about the food itself. “For most parents, the power struggle is the problem,” says Katja Rowell, MD, a child feeding specialist and founder of Family Feeding Dynamics (, “There’s a way to go about it so the child doesn’t have to lose face in order to eat a vegetable.”

An understanding of the basics of child development can help parents put their child’s eating into perspective. Developmentally, very young children are separating from their parents and learning to say, “No.” Young children are also naturally cautious, and they may be wary about food. Patience with a child’s food preferences is key. According to the American Dietetic Association’s, Nutrition Guidance for Healthy Children Ages 2 to 11 Years, “Children’s food preferences are learned through repeated exposure to foods. With a minimum of 8 to 10 exposures to a food, children will … develop an increased preference for that food.” After trying a food, a child may like it—or not—and that’s okay. When parents appreciate a child’s need for autonomy and the process of learning to like new foods, mealtimes are more pleasant and the child will do better with eating.

Rowell recommends reading Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter ( “Once parents understand the developmental aspects and realize that pressure with feeding backfires, they’ll trust how their kids eat and grow and the power struggles will stop,” says Rowell. “Some people can read a book and turn things around, others need more support.”

Rowell believes the most important things parents can do to help their kids be good eaters is to offer meals and snacks on a regular schedule, eat with their children, model enjoying a variety of foods, and follow the Division of Responsibility in Feeding which the American Dietetic Association describes as “Perhaps the best advice regarding child-feeding practices…”

The goal of the Division of Responsibility is for the parent to provide leadership and autonomy. It’s an evidence-based approach where the parent and the child have separate responsibilities. The parent does the job of feeding and the child does the job of eating. From toddlerhood to adolescence, the parent is responsible for the what, when and where of feeding; the child is responsible for the how much and whether of eating.

Parent’s Feeding Jobs

  • Choose and prepare food
  • Provide regular meals and snacks
  • Make eating pleasant (No pressure, bribing or other control tactics. This is time to connect with your family)
  • Model what you want children to learn about food and behavior
  • Do not let children graze for food or beverages (except water) between meals and snacks
  • Let children grow up to have the body that is right for them (Unconditional acceptance of a child’s appetite and body is critical)

Child’s Eating Jobs

As long as parents stick to the “parent’s feeding jobs” and don’t pressure children to eat more or less, children will:

  • Eat the amount they need
  • Learn to eat the foods you eat
  • Choose a variety of food over several days
  • Grow predictably in the way that’s right for them
  • Learn to behave at the table

The Division of Responsibility in Feeding helps parents raise good eaters. It’s intuitive and nurturing, but not widely practiced. “The norm of feeding today is abnormal,” says Rowell. “We don’t just have an ‘obesity crisis’, we have a feeding crisis with more extreme dieting, more disordered eating, higher rates of obesity and more eating disorders in children. The problem is that we feed from fear, avoidance and control. We need to return to feeding from a place of nurturing and trust using the Division of Responsibility. A healthy feeding relationship is the best preventive medicine I can think of.”

Katja Rowell, MD, is a childhood feeding specialist helping parents in person in the Twin Cities and by phone nationwide:

written by Karen Giles-Smith. Smith is MS, RD, is a registered dietitian and freelance writer based in Mason, Michigan. Visit her Web site and blog at


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