Raising Competent Eaters

Parents can find feeding kids very stressful. Are they eating enough? Are they eating too much? Are they eating the right things? Should we insist that they eat what we serve or serve things they will eat? One approach to kids’ nutrition can help with the uncertainty and stress: raising competent eaters.

What’s a competent eater?

Competent eaters are comfortable with food and eating and they make good choices about food.

Experts identify four elements of being a competent eater:

  • Eating attitudes: competent eaters enjoy food and do not experience shame or anxiety about eating.
  • Food acceptance: competent eaters enjoy a variety of foods. They learn to eat and enjoy more different kinds of foods over time.
  • Regulation of food intake and body weight: competent eaters recognize when they are satisfied and can stop eating when they are full. They are also comfortable with eating at mealtimes.
  • Management of the eating context: competent eaters are comfortable with family meals and have the skills to make sure they eat regularly. They are able to be flexible when circumstances cause changes beyond their control.

When parents recognize that they have a long-term goal of helping kids to become competent eaters, the focus doesn’t have to be on whether kids must clean their plates at a particular meal. In fact, the focus doesn’t need to be on any particular meal. Instead, there is a larger perspective: developing a healthy relationship with food.

Encourage positive attitudes about eating

Some steps toward raising competent eaters:

  • Provide balanced meals and snacks at regular times. This helps kids feel confident that they can stop eating when they are satisfied, knowing that there will be another meal or snack soon.
  • Avoid rushing through meals. Grabbing something on your way out the door, snatching a bite over the sink, or racing through dinner before an event may be a normal part of modern life, but try to make space for relaxed family meals.
  • Make mealtimes pleasant. This can mean resisting a desire to nag kids about eating, or remembering not to focus on worries about calories or unhealthy foods. Provide healthy foods and allow kids to choose among them.
  • Respect your kids’ appetites and preferences, as well as your own. This will help kids stop eating when they have had enough, not when they are uncomfortably full. On the other hand, don’t stop putting vegetables on the plate just because your child doesn’t always eat them. It takes time to develop appreciation for new foods.
  • Avoid making eating a way of showing love. Choosing not to finish a dish doesn’t mean your child doesn’t love the person who cooked it.
  • When you choose to serve less-healthy foods, enjoy them without focusing on the idea that you are being naughty or that you shouldn’t eat them. Help your child see the value of choosing healthy foods, but don’t create forbidden foods.
  • Include kids in planning meals, cooking, and serving food. Have a goal of making sure your kids are able to plan and prepare their own meals when they grow up.  

A long-range view can make feeding your child less stressful.