While listening to Morning Edition on NPR on the way to work a few days ago, a story of particular interest to me began playing as soon as I drove into the parking lot for my work.  Instead of turning off the car, and going into work, as I should have since I was already late, I sat in the car and listened to this.

I self-congratulated myself as I heard the reporter beg her son to eat his vegetables.  I shuddered a little when she told him that eating his vegetables would make him a big boy.  I thought, that woman needs to talk to Ellyn Satter.

Within a few radio seconds, the reporter was on the phone with Ellyn Satter, a therapist and dietician who has written a number of books about feeding young children, and Ms. Satter began explaining to the reporter that the harder she worked to get her child to eat something, the more likely that he would resist.

When Bear was starting solids, I was at a complete loss at how to feed her.  I felt like her pediatrician gave us very vague guidelines, and as a clueless mom with no previous experience, I took to googling.  Fortunately, I began seeing a pattern of other moms who reported that Ellyn Satter’s book, Child of Mine, was pivotal in forming the way that they fed their children, and so I ordered it.

Shortly before the book arrived in the mail, I found myself engaged in the usual struggle to get Bear to try a new solid.  I put the spoon of sweet potatoes that I had lovingly pureed to her closed lips and she turned her head.  With animated gestures, I tried some and demonstrated how much I liked it.  She took a swipe at the bowl.  I began bargaining with her.  If you just try it, you’ll like it, I told her.  Finally, I stood over her and when she opened her mouth, I shoved in the spoon.  Bear protested and spit sweet potato onto her tray and looked at me like, why, mom?  I did not want my child to become a picky eater.  I am not.  My husband is not, and Bear was not going to be a picky eater either.

Early in the book, Ms. Satter essentially says that forcing your child to eat something means that as a parent, you have a problem with control.  This sentiment pained me.  Was I controlling Bear by trying to get her to try something new?  Was this control hurting her and hurting me?

Quickly, I shifted my efforts at meal time from trying to get Bear to eat to simply providing food for her.  If she did not want it, she didn’t have to eat it.  This approach made meal times so much more relaxed, and I quickly let go of the frustration that I felt inside when Bear refused to eat something.  I would still offer it, but she could choose whether she wanted to eat it or not.

However, this week’s story on NPR made me realize that I am still controlling Bear’s meal times in a way that Ms. Satter would not approve.  She tells the reporter to let her son eat bread, even five pieces of bread at meal time, if this is what her son wants.  In Child of Mine, she suggests putting food on the table and allowing your child to eat as much or as little as the child chooses and to always include some food that you know that your child likes.  Her theory, and that of others I assume, is that children instinctively know how to self-regulate, and they will eat what they need and not over eat what they do not.  According to Ms. Satter, by allowing children the freedom to control how much they eat during a meal, they will begin exercising their internal self-control.

My problem is this:  When I cook, I rarely make enough to put in serving dishes.  I make enough for the meal, and I dish food directly onto plates.  In light of Bear’s restrictive food allergies, sometimes Bear gets different food than my husband and I, although I try to avoid this as much as possible.  I serve Bear her food on a plate, and generally, there is no more of this food beyond what I have given her.  Then, I am comfortable with allowing her to eat all or none of it.  This is her choice.

The issue arises when I serve something that there is more of, like a slice of cheese.  I will cut up pieces for Bear and put them on her plate with the rest of her food.  She loves cheese and will always eat it first.  Then, she’ll turn to the refrigerator and beg for more cheese instead of eating any more of her food.  My husband and I do not indulge Bear in this request, and I wonder if in this way, I am deviating from Ms. Satter’s suggestions.  Perhaps I should cut more slices of cheese and make them available at the table when we sit down to eat.  Then, as Bear finishes what she has, allow her to have more if she wants it. 

This is where I find myself struggling with Ms. Satter’s theory.  I know that Bear will only eat cheese if given the opportunity.  I am comfortable with allowing her to eat the cheese on her plate and then allowing her to choose to eat the rest of her food (or not) with the assumption that if she is hungry, she will eat some of the rest of her food.  If she has an unlimited supply of cheese (at least, unlimited to the extent of what is on the table), I don’t think that she’ll ever reach the conclusion of “I am still hungry.  I have no more cheese, so I’ll eat something else.”

Perhaps, I need to return to Child of Mine.  Perhaps, I need Ellyn Satter on speed dial.  Are any of you familiar with Ellyn Satter’s theories?  Would any of you like to share your thoughts on this or your own battles with toddlers and food?

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