Before I was even pregnant, I bought my first baby garment that sat buried in my closet where my unsuspecting husband wouldn’t find it. It was an adorable baby bib with the famous quote “Life’s uncertain, eat dessert first,” a cheeky nod to my own unapologetic sweet tooth and my aspirations for my hypothetical future child. Little did I know that years later it would become my meal time mantra for feeding my son, and the subject of much debate amongst anyone who ever watched our dinner routine.
When I was growing up, family dinners usually included some kind of meat, a starch (usually potatoes—my mom’s side is British), and something green. If it was determined that we choked back enough of our veggies, we got what we really wanted: dessert. Not surprisingly, dinner in our house was a daily battle, driving my mom to name cooking her least favorite chore.
Later on in life, when my pickiness had faded, another arguably even more problematic eating issue arrived: I was introduced to diet culture. By young adulthood, I had no problem eating my vegetables. In fact, my problem was more that I only wanted to eat vegetables, as society had taught me that good girls ignored their bodies’ cues and ate only “good,” “clean” food. Assigning moral value to what was on my plate meant that one too many bites of pie would need to be followed by some sort of miserable cleanse, which of course fueled the endless restrict-binge-repeat cycle. The end result was a devastating eating disorder that put my entire mental and physical health in danger.
Thankfully, with therapy and commitment to intuitive eating, I’m now a professional pleasure-seeking food lover (who also happens to be a registered dietitian) and I’ve built an entire career out of denouncing diet culture. I’m also a mom to a vivacious 14-month old boy, and while I’m thrilled for him to inherit my hair, eyes, and musicality, I am trying my hardest to save him from adopting my former disordered relationship with food.
This is one area where our kids can actually excel with less teaching and intervention. Babies are born with an amazing innate ability to regulate their hunger and appetite. They cry when they’re hungry, and they push the bottle or breast away when they’re full. It’s that simple. When they start solids, they don’t see broccoli as “diet food,” or immediately identify cookies as forbidden “guilt-inducing” treats—foods are all just different shapes, textures, flavors, and colors that take the hunger pangs away. Just imagine for a moment how freeing this perspective would be.
Society and social interactions (most of which, at least at first, come from the family feeding dynamics) are what teach us diet culture to begin with. And while it’s impossible to completely shield my son from the world and the way society talks about food, one thing I can do is change the way we frame mealtime at home.
In many households, it often starts with an innocent, well-meaning request: “Finish your vegetables and then you can have dessert.” To a parent that is a reasonable transaction, but to a child that is translated as: “Mom is making me eat the stinky Brussels sprouts first, which is such a punishment, I get rewarded with some cake.” This might work in the short term to boost your kid’s fiber intake, but it doesn’t set him up to want to load up on his brassicas when he’s out of the house and no one is policing his plate.
I decided to do things differently. My plan going into solids was to offer a variety of foods of different flavors, textures, and colors, of varying degrees of nutritional content, and let my kid’s intuition be his guide. I also started serving dessert WITH his green beans, sweet potatoes, and fish, and let him eat it first if that’s what he chooses to do.
This might sound radical, but it’s actually a well-researched and documented recommendation based on the principals of Ellyn Satter’s the Division of Responsibility (sDOR), grounded in over 40 years of clinical work and research on eating competence. Satter posits that a parent’s job is to determine what, when, and where meals or snacks happen, and the toddler is responsible for determining which foods and how much food he or she consumes. Under this model, there is no need to play games, make bargains, or play the short order cook. Our kid learns how to eat in response to his body’s needs and associate meal times with pleasure (rather than pressure), and I don’t stress about what or how much he eats! He’s the boss! He will eat more or less at his next snack or meal to fill the gaps! (Of course, a child with allergies or other dietary restrictions, growth concerns, or sensory issues may need more guidance—which is why it’s important to always discuss diet with your pediatrician or a registered dietitian.)
Practically speaking, this means I serve our meal family style and let the kiddo decide which items he wants to eat and in which order he wants to eat them. While the salad, rice, and roast chicken portions are theoretically unlimited, Satter recommends limiting dessert to one child-sized portion so that it doesn’t suppress their appetite for other foods, but also removes its “power” and moral value.
The reason for this unconventional arrangement is three-fold.
One, when we hold off on dessert until after kids eat their veggies (as we do with a “traditional” meal progression), we inadvertently give our kids their first lesson in diet culture: that high-sugar, low-nutrient foods are affiliated with gluttony, lust, guilt, and are solely the reward for eating the not-so-palatable “good” foods.
Two, it encourages our kids to rush through dinner to get the dessert faster, making family mealtime less than enjoyable.
And three, it provides external cues for eating that crowd out our kid’s own intuition, either encouraging them to undereat their main course in an attempt to save room for dessert, or to eat until fullness with their mains, only to then eat past fullness with dessert. Because, hey, don’t we always have an extra stomach for dessert?
While diet culture makes Satter’s approach seem indulgent and lackadaisical, major health authorities, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics, recommend the sDOR for teaching children how to follow their hunger and satiety cues and regulate their own food intake (an important aspect of eating competence). Research suggests that these skills help prevent over- or under-eating to support a stable body weight, encourage better food acceptance skills, and elicit more positive attitudes about eating and food. In contrast, controlling a child’s diet often has the opposite effect of what’s desired—when we pressure our kids to eat more, they eat less, and when we pressure them to eat less, they eat more.
I recognize that not everyone has the luxury of preparing a double portion of chicken breasts or sautéed kale in the hopes that their kids will load their plate up first with these premium ingredients. This approach is obviously the most accessible for people who can provide balanced meals and snacks for their children regularly, and this may be harder in situations where someone is food-insecure or where the parent isn’t typically around at meal times. But the main tenets of the sDOR—to not push, bribe, restrict, or assign moral value to any foods—can likely be incorporated into many families’ food dynamics.
I’m not even a year into the solids game, but so far, my son is an amazing, competent eater, and our mealtimes are low stress and enjoyable for all. Some days, he goes straight for his baked apple crisp, and others, it’s broccoli or hamburger first. And one meal’s pattern is often flipped at the subsequent snack.
I may be a dietitian, but as a mom, I am significantly more invested in the long-term goal of raising a competent eater with a healthy relationship with food, than the short-term goal of reaching a certain number of grams of fiber each day. Foods may not be all nutritionally equal, but with this simple adjustment in the meal structure, we can make them morally equal. I’m sure I have lots to teach my son—his ABCs, table manners, and how to do his chores—but this kid is already an expert on how to eat so I’m going to let him do it his way.