Expanding Kids' Autonomy with Food

Expanding Kids’ Autonomy with Food

Christie Caggiani, RDN, LDN, CEDRD

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Parenting is all about guiding, providing, teaching with unconditional love.  And it’s also about allowing our kids the space to try, explore and figure things out so that they can eventually trust themselves to make supportive choices.  Not only these overall developmental themes, they are also completely relevant as kids personalize their own relationship with food, eating and connection with their bodies.  When our children are young, we are the gatekeepers of the food:  providing, preparing and presenting it in a reliable, and consistent manner 1.  And while we may still be paying the grocery bills and answering the age-old  question, “What’s for dinner?!” as long as our children are under our roofs , our kids pretty quickly begin to practice more and more independence and autonomy with their food.  Imagine, if you were still cutting your 15 year olds steak at the dinner table!  That seems ridiculous, yet we want to make certain that we are also giving our kids the space to explore and take charge in other ways with their eating experiences.  Particularly as our children explore the middle- and high-school years, there are endless opportunities for us to give them room to make more of their own food decisions.

Give suggestions not solutions

Our hormonal little teddy bears (often disguised as grizzly bears), typically don’t respond well when we try to solve things for them.  They may ASK us for the answers, but they really want to be able to make their own decisions, and yet know they need some input from us.

Instead of“Why don’t you ever eat breakfast in the morning? “

Try“I notice you’ve been talking a lot about how tired you are, is there anything you think might make getting up less brutal?” .   Then, rather than firing off 5 things you know would work, simply ask if he would like some suggestions.  Not only does this give you an opening to discuss simple breakfasts that can be ready crazy fast and keep his energy up, it also gives you some space to discuss time management and ways the family can work together to support each other.

Capture teachable moments

We may be acutely aware that certain patterns aren’t working well for our kids.  An extremely common pitfall is the post-school slump.  Not only do our kids come home worn out from thinking, they’re also really, really hungry.  Getting them to connect how the first half of their day plays a role in the second half is a really big deal.

Instead of:  “How come you’re raiding the pantry the second you walk in the door?” which is not only shaming, it completely cuts off communication.

Try:  “I’m not going to bombard you with questions since you seem like you don’t want to talk right now.  Do you need any help putting together a snack?”  Then once she has some food in her system, you might explore the timing of lunch and foods she could add to it or to breakfast to keep hunger from building to the tipping point after school.   Discussing food or patterns that aren’t quite helpful will NOT go well, if her brain is irritable and famished.

Give options and reinforce you trust them

If you have a child who struggles to make her own decisions, or turns to you for permission, practice turning the question back on her.  Remembering that there is no perfect eating choice can really take the pressure off.  If she asks, “Mom, can I eat something else?”….

Instead of:  And absolute “yes” or “no”

Try:  “You’re the best one to know if you’re still hungry, so go ahead and listen to what your body’s asking for.  There is absolutely more food, so help yourself.”

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Get curious

Encourage your kids to take an attitude of curiosity.   Since we know that calling foods good or bad creates an onslaught of judgment and distorted eating, it’s helpful to teach them to explore what’s working for them or not so much.  This can include them choosing a different / new food from the grocery store or getting curious about how long a bowl of cereal satisfies after breakfast, and how that’s different than eating an egg sandwich.  Their first-hand experience is priceless and will speak volumes over our well-intended lectures.  And this experience is precisely what helps them launch as well-adjusted, balanced and connected young adults.

1.  Division of Responsibilities, Ellyn Satter, RD

Something More Than Fish


Charlie tells his younger sister: “These are not fish sticks. These are ocean nibbles from the supermarket under the sea—mermaids eat them all of the time.”

—I Will Never Not Ever Eat a Tomato by Lauren Child

As you know, I’m not perfect. Rather, I’m the real deal! I am the dietitian with the picky kids. My children definitely give me much practice about what I preach. And then, thank goodness, there are other times. I continue on this long journey of exposing my children to foods and trying my best to allow them to develop positive relationships with eating and neutral relationships with food. Mind you, this is no easy task. It’s a difficult balancing act. 

Our latest feat was fish sticks. Just remember that when we talk about fish sticks, we are really referring to something of a metaphor for life. Read on to learn more.

My youngest son Billy has been picky and often frustrating about food since the day he was born. At one point he loved Dr. Praeger’s Fish Sticks; he would eat four or five of them in one sitting. Billy’s enjoyment was of brief duration and he never seemed ready to reincorporate these ocean nibbles onto his personal “I really like this!” list despite our best efforts. Well, for some reason, this week was different. Once again, we offered fish sticks to Billy. To be exact, I made both boys fish sticks—a very child-friendly food—and put them on their dinner plates. However, I put only one fish stick on Billy’s plate. My husband and I were eating kale salad, herbed pork tenderloin and roasted potatoes. I know the boys won’t eat this dinner and I don’t make a big deal about it. This frustrates my husband, especially as the boys get older. However, when we push, like I did with the sweet potato puree (Read my recent blog, The Imperfect Food Mom), the boys push back.

In recent months, I’ve seen Billy eat a fish stick. I’ve actually seen him gobble it down! I can’t remember the specific circumstances around that particular meal. The one thing I realized was that he’s been playing us with the darn fish sticks. The way he scarfed down that fish stick made it clear that he really likes the taste or, at least, doesn’t mind the taste. Lately, I’ve been telling the boys how important it is to try new things whether they are sports activities or different foods. I have also been telling them: “You don’t need to eat your favorite foods every night. Mommy and Daddy sometimes make a meal that we don’t particularly enjoy, but we eat it anyway. Every meal doesn’t have to taste great. We just need to get nutrition from eating it. Eating our favorite meals happens just some of the time.”

So Billy looked down at his fish stick and immediately said: “I don’t like fish sticks.” I don’t recall my exact response at that moment, but by the end of our conversation, Billy was expressing his desire for Smart Puffs. (Note: I’m not a fan of Smart Puffs, but I do buy them on occasion because Billy is!) So I clearly told him: “You need to eat something with nutrition. You need to meet your body’s needs for growing. You can have Smart Puffs, but you haven’t eaten enough protein today.” As you might imagine, the little gamer asked: “Can I have some Smart Puffs if I eat my fish stick?” Well, of course! And he did. He happily ate his fish stick and then his Smart Puffs.

The next night we found ourselves with the same situation. This time, however, I put two fish sticks on Billy’s plate. He asked for his Smart Puffs and he got them after eating one and then the other fish stick. Please understand that this was not a food reward. I was not rewarding Billy for eating his fish stick. Rather, I was letting him know it’s okay to have all foods some of the time. You can eat foods lower in nutrition but not at the sacrifice/cost of a more nutritious food when growing…or just on a regular basis. 

After two consecutive nights of fish sticks, Billy asked if he could have fish sticks every other night rather than every night. Sure he can. I wasn’t planning to put fish sticks on his plate every night or even every other night. But since he thought I was—and he now thinks he made the decision about when to have them—I went with it!

I realize fish sticks are not the most nutritious nor desirable food one would want their children to eat. But when you have a picky eater, you must start somewhere. Knowing whether your child is playing you, knowing when to push, and knowing when a child is truly revolted by a food is a hard task to tackle. I choose to walk this line very carefully…and without any rush factor. I choose to do so because I clearly see the negative effects of creating power struggles around food between parents and children in my office. I successfully used this approach with my oldest son Bobby. He has become the best intuitive eater—slowly but surely reincorporating familiar foods and trying new foods almost daily now that he has turned six.

I do believe in the process of food exposure and sometimes even giving a little push. I remember my personal pickiness when I was a child. I actually think my vegetarianism and then veganism in high school and college were in part to send a direct message to my family. My message said: “You made me eat meat…and I didn’t like it!” It also said I am different from you because I eat different foods than you. The same things happen with my clients. I have teenagers either refusing to eat anything at all, or eating only certain foods. And they’re doing this partly to control their parents or get their attention. 

I don’t want to have power struggles about food with my children, so perhaps I am a bit more relaxed with food than others would think. As a parent, this is your decision too. Just recognize that feeding and eating isn’t simply a straight forward matter. Ultimately, it’s how individuals identify, label and communicate their inner selves to the world. This is the metaphor: What happens with food typically represents what’s happening with life at that time!




Getting Your Kids to Dig Veggies!

Real Mom Questions – Real Mom Answer: Getting Your Kids to Dig Veggies!

By: Laura Cipullo, RD, CDE, CEDRD, CDN

Real Mom Question:

I cannot get my girls to eat vegetables (toddler dilemma).  The only veggies I can get them to eat sometimes, are edamame, carrot French fries (which are really not veggies), or veggie burgers.  I try to sneak veggies into grilled cheese sandwiches, but they spit it out in disgust; they will eat around the peas if they find them in pasta sauce.  I have even tried hummus with carrot sticks, but they only want crackers or pretzels.

Any suggestions?

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Real Mom Answer:

Our cutie pies are so sweet but sometimes so difficult–especially when it comes to feeding and eating. Sit back and relax. This is a process, a long one that for some kids can last longer than others, depending on other circumstances.

But in general, veggies are bitter and therefore not so yummy to their little palates. I would ensure those veggies stay on the plate, however. Just because the girls have given up, don’t give up on trying.

How to get your kids to eat their veggies and like them!!

1. Keep ’em coming. Continue the exposure every night even if it is just one carrot. The more the tots see the veggies, the more neutral they will become.

2. If they like carrot French fries, try similar shapes, textures, and flavors. For instance, try sweet potato fries, fried zucchini sticks, carrot muffins, and carrot juice (mixed with apple juice).

3.  Sugar coat with cheese. Veggies may be bitter, but we can get the picky palates to convert by melting cheese on them or making cheese fondue. Even if the kids use the same veggie over and over as a utensil, that’s a great step in the right direction. As moms know, getting the toddlers to just touch or handle certain foods is a feat in and of itself.

4. Host a taste-test party. Go the grocery store and get one veggie to try five ways or get five veggies to try with one dip or condiment.

In our home, I host a Sunday “Maybe Someday They Will Eat This.” Of course, the kids don’t know I call the day this. But every Sunday I buy a bunch of new foods to try and let the kids try a few of them that night at dinner. Currently, I only do it on Sundays, but it has worked for us as I could not have the sitter doing it for me during the week.

5.  Watch Copy Kids, the best DVD ever that role models toddlers eating fruits and veggies.

6. Go out to eat!!! Yes, bring your little princes and princesses to restaurants.

Both of my boys have increased their food variety by trying out food at restaurants and trying new sides with their main courses. Think cheese quesadillas with a fruit salad of mango, pineapple, avocado, and peppers or steak with veggie biscuits. 

 7. Work with their favorite color or flavor. If they love purple, make purple potatoes, purple eggplant, purple cauliflower, purple broccoli, and so on.

8. Get your veggies from the farm. They taste one thousand times better. I know order all of my produce and proteins through Farmigo. It is the best-tasting and most visually appealing food by far. I mean, who wouldn’t want to snack on beans when they taste like sugar and crunch like chips?

9. Follow that popular saying “Keep Calm and Carry On!” With consistent effort and exposure minus the power struggle, your little ones will slowly get there. A veggie is healthy but not essential for life. Just keep moving forward.

And one last thing, try the new rainbow baby carrot sticks, they are beautiful and sweet!!!




The Truth About Eating Disorders: Common Myths Debunked

The Truth About Eating Disorders: Common Myths Debunked

by Julie Holland, MHS, CEDS


Because most eating disorders (approximately 95 percent) surface between the ages of 12 and 25, parents are often a first line of defense against the development of these illnesses in their children.* Despite increased prevalence of eating disorders in the United States, widespread misconceptions about eating disorders remain that challenge identification, diagnosis and early intervention. To truly protect and advocate for their children, it is important that parents understand the truth behind common eating disorder myths.

Myth: Eating disorders aren’t serious illnesses.

Truth: Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder and eating disorder not otherwise specified (EDNOS) are very real and very serious mental illnesses. Each disorder has clear diagnostic criteria in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual, the go-to diagnostic reference for mental healthcare professionals. Another reason to take eating disorders seriously is that they can be deadly. Anorexia nervosa has the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric disorder. In fact, women ages 15 to 24 years of age who suffer from anorexia nervosa are 12 times more likely to die from the illness than any other cause of death.**

Myth: Eating disorders are just about food.

Truth: While eating disorders generally involve obsession with calories, weight or shape, these illnesses are rooted in biological, psychological and sociocultural aspects. Restriction, bingeing, purging or over-exercise behaviors usually signify an attempt to control something of substance in the individual’s life. Because friends and family mistakenly believe that eating disorders are just about food, they will often encourage their loved ones to “just eat more,” “just eat less,” or “just eat healthier” to be “cured” of this illness. In reality, eating disorders often require some combination of medical, psychiatric, therapeutic and dietary intervention to achieve full recovery.

Myth: Eating disorders are a women’s illness.

Truth: While research shows that eating disorders affect significantly more women than men, these illnesses occur in men and boys as well. While males used to represent about 10 percent of individuals with eating disorders, a recent Harvard study found that closer to 25 percent of individuals presenting for eating disorder treatment are male. The widespread belief that eating disorders only affect women and girls can prevent accurate diagnosis of an eating disorder in a man or boy, even among healthcare experts.

Myth: Eating disorders don’t develop until the teenage years.

Truth: Consider this—research found that up to 60 percent of girls between the ages of 6 and 12 are concerned about their weight or about becoming too fat, and that this concern endures through life.*** Not surprisingly, the incidence of eating disorders in children is on the rise. Between 1999 and 2006, hospitalizations for eating disorders in children 12 and younger rose 119 percent, according to a 2010 study by the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Myth: Only very thin people have an eating disorder.

Truth: While anorexia is characterized by extreme low weight, many individuals struggling with bulimia, binge eating disorder and EDNOS are normal-weighted. The misconception that an eating disorder can only occur if someone is very thin contributes to misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis in many cases, even among those patients seeking support from medical and mental healthcare professionals. Unfortunately, many healthcare experts lack eating disorder exposure and training, which highlights the important role of eating disorder specialists to ensure effective diagnosis and early intervention.

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In addition to educating themselves about basic eating disorder information and understanding myth from fact, parents should also trust their instincts when it comes to eating disorders in their children. Eating disorders can thrive in secrecy, but parents often intuitively know if something is wrong with their children. While parents may feel terrified of saying the wrong thing, but also not want to stay silent, they are an important champion for diagnosis and effective treatment. If concern arises, consult with an eating disorder specialist sooner rather than later—early intervention is critical to lasting eating disorder recovery.


*Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), The Center for Mental Health Services (CMHS), offices of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

**American Journal of Psychiatry, Vol. 152 (7), July 1995, p. 1073-1074, Sullivan, Patrick F.

***T.F. Cash & L. Smolak (Eds.), Body Image: A Handbook of Science, Practice, and Prevention. New York: Guilford Press. 2011.

What Type of Parent are You at the Dinner Table?

What Kind of Parent are You at the Dinner Table?

By Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

*This post was originally published on www.DrGreene.com, the original post can be read here.

One of the fascinating aspects of being a feeding therapist that works with children in their homes is that I get to see first-hand the variations in parenting styles.

One particular family was memorable because both parents were security guards and they seemed to bring an element of their jobs to the family dinner table. They contacted me because their 5-year-old daughter, Elizabeth, wasn’t gaining weight and was a “very picky eater.” When I arrived at their home, both Mom and Dad were completely engaged with their little girl, all three laughing and playing together on the living room floor.

Interestingly, the atmosphere shifted the moment everyone sat down at the table. There was practically no conversation except to announce what was for dinner and how much the little girl was expected to eat “Remember to eat all your corn, Elizabeth,” her father stated. The parents watched over her vigilantly and occasionally reminded her to “keep eating.” When the couple had finished their meal, and Elizabeth was staring at her not-so-empty plate, her father reprimanded her for “not eating her corn…again.” Noteworthy to me was the fact that both parents felt the need to set stringent eating rules, enforce them and remind Elizabeth if she did not follow dinner time guidelines. Clearly, their concern for her growth and nutrition were in the forefront of their minds, but why did they feel this directive style of parenting was going to be helpful? What happened to those engaged, interactive parents I had just witnessed playing so beautifully with their little girl in the living room?

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To read more about Melanie click here or go to www.MyMunchBug.com.


It Takes a Village – And Then Some!

It Takes a Village – And Then Some!

by Erica Leon, MS, RDN, CDN

While not easy, I somehow launched my children into college and beyond. With fellow empty-nester friends who are also health professionals and moms—one a nurse, one a psychologist—I took a walk down memory lane. We reflected on teaching children good self-care, particularly when they have health concerns related to food.

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Peanut Allergy:

Carpooling was challenging enough, but when I thought three-year-old Thomas had shared my son’s peanut rice cakes, I panicked! Thomas was severely allergic to peanuts as well as tree nuts. Still parked at the nursery school, I hoisted Thomas like a football, screamed for the teachers, and rinsed his mouth, hoping I did not have to administer his EpiPen. He never ate any of the rice cakes, but I learned a valuable lesson on scrutinizing food items when you have or care for a child with allergies!

According to Hildie Kalish, RN, an elementary school nurse whose child has a severe nut allergy, “Keep your child safe by constantly checking and then rechecking ingredients in food products. Never assume an item is safe as it is not uncommon for food manufacturers to change ingredients or processing techniques. As soon as children are old enough to understand, teach them to read labels and avoid sharing food with other kids. When they are responsible enough, have them carry Benadryl and their own Epi-pen or Auvi-Q, and make sure they know how to use them.”


My nutritional skills were put to the test when I rescued ten-year-old Luke, my son’s friend, who was dizzy from playing baseball in the summer heat. Driving up with hydrating sports beverages and a mom’s wisdom, I remembered that Luke had an endocrine condition that made dehydration particularly dangerous. When a child exercises, their muscles generate heat, which in turn raises body temperature. The body cools itself through sweating, which must be replaced by fluid or the body will overheat.

Dehydration is more common in children, and young athletes are particularly prone to dehydration. Encourage your young athlete to drink fluids before, during, and after sports to prevent heat-related illnesses. Recommend fluid-rich foods such as fruits and vegetables and have your youngster carry a water bottle and drink a sports beverage when his/her physical activity level exceeds one hour.


I became a celiac expert when Rachel, a good friend of my daughter’s, was diagnosed. From that day forward, I stocked my cabinets with gluten-free items and helped her mom educate other parents about which foods to keep on hand for play dates.

 Merle Keitel, Ph.D, counseling psychologist and parent of a child with celiac, says,

“It is important to establish a support system that is aware of your child’s dietary restrictions and has food on hand that your child can eat if at their homes for an extended period of time.  In the case of celiac, fruits and vegetables work but if other children are having sweets, it is helpful for there to be chocolate or other gluten-free sweets so the child does not feel cheated and self conscious about being ‘different.’ Friends and extended family who are educated and willing to help can be a gift to the child with special dietary needs.”

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These real-life scenarios portray what can happen when a child has a chronic health condition. Says Kalish, “At school I work with families of kids newly diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes. I always say that education is key. I see parents overcompensating with extra treats for fear that their child will feel deprived. Diabetic children do not need extra treats. It is important to treat them like any other child and learn the merits of a healthy balanced diet with plenty of ‘everyday’ foods and occasional ‘sometimes’ foods.”

While we can try to protect our children from all types of threats, educating your child, caregivers, schools, and trusted friends about a chronic health condition is essential. Allow your child to take the reigns and manage his/her own health as soon as he/she are emotionally and intellectually ready. We want our kids to remember the lessons that we teach them at home, as they will eventually leave the nest.

Color Me Red

Color Me Red

by Christie Caggiani, RDN, LDN, CEDRD 


As we enter February, we’re seeing Red around every corner.  Valentine’s Day and American Heart Month highlight the color, and give us a burst as the sometimes-drab days of winter continue to swirl around us.   Not only can our moods become a little blah this time of year, our food choices may become more monotonous as well.  By creating a theme, however, we can add a fun, proactive twist to eating, and bring more variety to our plates. What a great way to jazz up your kids lunchboxes, snacks or meals at home by picking a color theme– and what better color this month than RED!

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Our role as parent or provider is not to make sure our kids love everything they eat, but rather to present them with opportunities to explore food, develop their preferences, expand their comfort level around a variety of choices, and therefore become confident, competent eaters.  A color theme is one way that children can participate in the process, as they identify colors in the grocery store, find them in your fridge, and add them to their plate palate.  It also provides an opportunity for them to learn about the function of many foods.   For example, as you will notice below, many red fruits and veggies help promote heart health, so children can begin to connect the ways that foods work for them and support their bodies and brains.   If you are introducing a new food, make it fun and don’t be discouraged if they don’t enjoy it the first time around (or the first many times!). 

So roll out the red carpet and enjoy acquainting your family with some of these bright beauties: 

Acai: This berry from Central and South America is shown to have excellent antioxidant value, which may assist in heart health, decreased inflammation and decreased risk of some cancers.  Mix frozen acai in your blender with a splash of milk and banana, then top with granola, fresh fruit and shredded coconut for a colorful and satiating breakfast or snack. 

Cherries:  These succulent rubies give us great fiber, immune-helping vitamin C, and heart-happy potassium.  Slice up fresh or frozen cherries for a fun ice cream topping or substitute berries in your favorite recipe with equal parts (pitted) cherries. 

Cranberries:  Not only are they super for our urinary tract system, they may also help keep our digestive system protected from unhealthy bacteria and ulcers.   Pour a glass of cranberry juice, add some canned cranberries into a smoothie or mix some dried cranberries into your kids’ trail mix.

Raspberries:  Rich in vitamins C and K, and many antioxidants such as alpha and beta-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, and choline,  these berries can help protect our heart and prevent certain types of cancers.  Fold some fresh berries into your favorite muffin or pancake mix, or keep frozen raspberries on hand to toss into a smoothie or oatmeal

Strawberries:  They are a good source of heart-helping folate, which decreases the risk of certain birth defects, and are a powerhouse of the antioxidant vitamin C, giving a boost to our immune system.   Sprinkle some strawberries on cereal or blend up some frozen strawberries in a milk and yogurt smoothie.  Or dip into some melted chocolate for a super satisfying snack!


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Watermelon:  Despite popular belief that watermelon is made up of only water and sugar, it is actually considered a nutrient dense food, one that provides a high amount of vitamins, particularly A and C, mineralssuch as magnesium, potassium and zinc, and antioxidants, including high levels of lycopene.  Because it does contain 92% water, it’s also a wonderful way to help keep your kids hydrated.  Insert a popsicle stick into watermelon chunks for a fun snack, or freeze some watermelon balls to add to your kids’ water bottles. 

Beets:  With an earthy flavor that gets supersweet when cooked, beets are very nutrient-loaded, giving us 19 percent of the daily value for folate, necessary for the growth of healthy new cells.  Their rich color comes from the phytochemical betanin, which helps bolster immunity. Roast them, pickle them or shred them raw and dress them with citrus for a refreshing salad. 

Red peppers:  For the love of your eyes and your skin, include these vitamin A-packed foods.  Add a little crunch to your child’s favorite deli sandwich or have them taste test with peanut butter or hummus. 

Tomatoes:  These red beauties are heart protective and provide a great defense against prostate and potentially breast cancers.  Include a little more marinara sauce on your pasta or add some grape tomatoes into the lunchbox.  

The Harmful Happy Plate

The Harmful Happy Plate

by Julie Dillon, MS, RD, NCC, LDN, CEDRD

My everyday mealtime chaos includes my six-year-old daughter singing at the top of her lungs while my two-year-old son eats one bite then jets from the table. I think that it would be much easier if he still used his high chair, yet he rejected that contraption as soon as he could walk. This makes mealtime a bit messier and acrobatic in nature. In the blink of an eye, he goes from noshing on dinner to dancing in the living room. “We sit to eat” crosses my lips throughout the meal, and I lead him back to the table. Toddlers are distracted by nature, so we try to keep distractions to a minimum (no TV) and give him a high five when he sits safely at the table. We are clear about when meal time is over so he can get his fill, and he will sign “All done!” when his body communicates fullness. Sometimes this happens with a bite or three helpings.

Recently I received a text from a dear friend. She is raising her children to be intuitive eaters and modeling healthy ways of relating to food. With intention, this family neutrally represents food and teaches kids to eat when their tummies have the amount they need.

Luckily, our children are born intuitive eaters—yet our world is not. My friend and I often lament about how hard we need to work in order to shield our children from learning body distrust and body hate.

So imagine her surprise when my friend’s daughter finished dinner and announced that it was now a “happy plate.” I felt sadness when she texted the details. After getting clarification, my friend learned the Happy Plate practice exists at her daughter’s childcare center.

What is the Happy Plate? Often at daycare and family dinner tables, “Make it a happy plate!” can be heard when a child wants to leave the meal with food remaining. I have been told that it is done to encourage children to eat enough and be sure they won’t ask for more food shortly thereafter.

As a pediatric dietitian and eating disorder specialist, I strongly discourage this Happy Plate nonsense. My top three reasons include:

  1. The Happy Plate mantra encourages children to discount hunger and fullness cues. When we plate a child’s food or pack his/her lunch, we are not in his/her body nor are we able to predict with 100 percent accuracy the exact amount of energy he/she will need at that meal. If a child is full, do we really need to encourage him/her to eat more? What’s more, teaching a child to ignore hunger and fullness cues lays a foundation of negative body image and body distrust.
  2. “Make It a Happy Plate” cajoling teaches a child to eat to please rather than fueling his/her body. Eating to make another person happy normalizes disordered eating while omitting innate hunger and fullness wisdom.
  3. Happiness feels good and easy, so of course we prefer it. On the other hand, the human experience includes sadness, frustration, boredom, loneliness, anger, and a myriad of other emotions. Some feel comfortable while others do not. Discounting the fullness experience in favor of a Happy Plate transforms the eating relationship—and not in a good way. It spells out that eating past fullness can make us feel happy. It also makes our loved ones happy. Do we want to teach children to eat in order to make happiness?

What’s the alternative to the ease of the Happy Plate? Here are things to consider:

  1. Be sure to structure consistent meal and snack times. This helps a child respect hunger and fullness while tolerating hunger if he/she is hungry a bit before an eating time. When a child says he/she is all done, kindly remind her when the next eating time will occur. Do not provide between-meal handouts besides planned snacks.
  2. Children make mistakes when plating their own food. In order for a child to become a competent eater, you will have food waste. Save the starving children comments and acknowledge when a child listens to his/her body. An example: “You served yourself, and you decided you didn’t need all of it.” Keep it neutral because food decisions are not good or bad.
  3. If a child eats little at a meal and requests food outside of mealtime, kindly remind him/her of the next meal or snack time. If the child says he/she is hungry, teach him/her what to do. Say “Your tummy is hungry, so remind it that food will be available soon. It is just not time to eat.” NOTE: Need to consider child’s age and time until next meal. 
  4. Hold back the praise when a child eats everything on her plate. A child who ate all of her food and another child who ate half of the food served did an equally good job at that meal. This may feel unnatural, but it is the way to promote healthy ways of relating to food and positive body image.

10 Ways to Say I Love You


So Valentine’s Day is coming up. How are you thinking of showing your love? Do your children celebrate in school? I ask you to take some time to think, “Does your child equate Valentine’s Day with chocolate hearts?” or the message of “We show love with candy?” If your child associates holidays or even birthdays with food/candy, especially “treats,” now is the time to create a new healthy association.

So why I am saying this? Because when kids equate food with love, they may eventually look to food for love when they are lonely, feel empty, and/or feel sad. This situation can domino as an adult and even turn into emotional eating and binge eating. Ideally, we teach kids that food and feelings should not be merged, well not all of the time anyway. Rather, food is fuel for wellness, and feelings are feelings that are best managed with coping skills.

This holiday, show your love with hugs and kisses! Plan a special night for the whole family.

Give your child a card that lists all the reasons why you love them. Gift them a heart picture frame with a family picture. Can you share some chocolate? Well, of course you can! The idea is to teach your child how to express love and celebrate in meaningful and truly special ways. Ideally you want your child to equate love with family or something kind, but not just food.

Here are some ideas to create new Valentine’s Day traditions!

  1. Create construction paper flowers with your children: on each petal, you and your child can write what makes him/her special and unique.
  2. Practice kindness for the fourteen days leading up to Valentine’s Day. Remember that actions speak louder than words.
  3. Frame and gift a picture of the family doing something together that everyone loves.
  4. Plan a family outing on Valentine’s Day to go ice skating or bowling in honor of celebrating your love and the love of life.
  5. Hang a chalkboard in your kitchen with all the ways that your family can express love.
  6. Think of what makes you feel good inside and incorporate that into your family.
  7. Ask teachers at school to have parents come in to read books about love and kindness rather than giving bags of chocolate
  8. Send cards to family and friends listing all the fun times you have shared.
  9. Turn off you iPhones, screens, and mind! Just devote the night to your child/children. Play games, read, and just be together.
  10.  __________________________________________________________________

You can fill in the rest. Let us know what #10 is for you.

The above may not be for everyone, but it is definitely one of the many things I want to do for my kids and clients, with the hope that they never have to experience disordered eating and/or an eating disorder.

Happy National Oatmeal Month!

Love Your Heart With Oats

Photo Credit: Chef Cooke via Compfight cc

The oats found in oatmeal are a rich source of beta-glucans which provide a source of dietary fiber to the body. The beta-glucans found in oats and other grains such as barley and rye contain soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber has been shown to lower cholesterol levels and can also regulate blood glucose levels due to the way it is digested in the body. The insoluble fiber helps keep your bowel movements regular! Beta-glucans have also been claimed to boost immunity.


5 Tips for Getting the Grains:

  1. Add oats to a cookie or muffin recipe.
  2. Include barely in soups and stews.
  3. Swap sprouted barely bread for other sandwich breads.
  4. Hide oats in your turkey meatloaf.
  5. Start your day with hot oat bran cereal and slivered almonds.
Photo Credit: just_jeanette via Compfight cc

Recipes to Rave About: