A Blog from Your Kaiser Permanente Pediatricians in Northern California

Healthy Meals for Kids? You Serve, They Choose

One day when I was a medical student, I was assigned to work in the gastroenterology clinic. There weren’t many children who needed to be seen that day. As I waited for the next patient, I picked a book off the shelf and started reading. It was small, had a friendly cover, and looked approachable: Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense, by Ellyn Satter.

Indeed, it was a gem. I passed my time that morning reading, and the words I soaked up have stuck with me as I’ve raised my three children. They’ve guided me as I’ve talked with scores of parents through the years about their kids.

Ms. Satter, a nutrition guru, convinces us that there’s an important division of labor in feeding children. Grown-ups choose what food is served; kids choose what to eat and how much. If trusted, kids will eat the right amount of food their bodies’ need. Some days kids grow more than other days. Some days they move more than other days. Growth and exercise create energy (or, calorie) needs and the body feels this need as hunger. Only the child knows when they‘re hungry.

At times parents find it very hard to trust in nature, but children are built for success! Ms. Satter explains:

“Your child will get hungry, eat, get filled up, and stop eating (even in the middle of a bowl of ice cream). Whether your child needs a lot or a little, she instinctively eats as much as she needs. If you follow the division of responsibility with feeding she will automatically eat the right amount of food to grow and be as active as is right for her.”

However, if parents interfere with this natural rhythm, we risk raising children who are either too heavy or too thin for what nature intended. Imagine how confusing it may be to a young child when, on one hand, his brain knows he is not hungry but his parent tells him to eat more! Repeat these confusing signals enough times and your child will stop listening to his body. He may eat beyond satisfying his hunger and fill up with unneeded calories. Or he may push back against the parental pressure and not eat enough.

So what should a parent do? You serve and let them choose. Fill their plates with good choices. You’re obviously not offering soda, chips, and sugary cereal all day long. Instead, lay out fruits, veggies, proteins, and whole grains. Then sit back, relax, and trust your very smart child.

Read more about family nutrition in our post 10 Nutritional Soundbites.