The Feeding Relationship: How to Build Trust With Your Child Around Food
“The life lesson to be learned from this eating and feeding dilemma is that with our children we have a window of opportunity to learn a better way. We all grow and change because we want life to be better for our children than it has been for us.” - Ellyn Satter, Author of Child of Mine: Feeding With Love and Good Sense
Do you trust your child to eat what they need to grow at a rate that is right for their own body?
This is so much easier said than done. The reality is that a majority of parents unknowingly feed their kids with a hidden agenda.
What exactly does this mean?
Simply put, many parents struggle to stick to their jobs with feeding and trusting that their child is able to do their part without any interventions.
There are multiple things that can influence how we feel about feeding our kids and whether or not we fully trust our children to do their part in eating, which we’ll take a closer look at in this article.
But first, let’s delve into the whole idea of feeding our kids as a relationship to better understand why this is important.
Understanding the Feeding Relationship
What exactly is a feeding relationship between you and your child and why does this matter? It’s important to take a step back to understand the significance of child feeding.
HOW we feed our kids matters. In fact, the way we meet this basic need for our children has significant implications on all other aspects of their lives, health, and well-being.
Feeding, in fact, is parenting, not just something we have to check off the list or a mundane chore (even though it can feel that way at times).
There are many factors that can create distrust in the feeding relationship between kids and their parents, which can impact how a child feels about food and his or her body for years to come.
More kids than ever today are suffering with the consequences of a poor feeding relationship, including disordered eating, poor body image and feeding issues. More parents than ever are struggling to know the best way to feed their children. This has created an undeniable tension, strain, and a complete sense of overwhelm between parents and children when it comes to feeding. So many parents that I work with are at a total loss of how to feed their kids in a way that encourages healthy, adventurous eaters. We are inundated with information about healthy eating, on top of which, we’re often the targets of a fear-mongering diet culture.
Added to this, as a society, we are busier than we have ever been, making it difficult to eat together or enjoy food as a family. Studies have found that family time at the dinner table has declined by more than 30% in recent years, with less than a one fourth of families eating multiple meals together per week.
Pressed for time, feeding our kids has become a mundane, even aggravating chore that we have to check off our ever growing to-do lists rather than a time to reconnect and build trust with our children. As a result, the joy that should come in both feeding our children and sharing food together has been lost.
More than ever, our kids need to grow from the strong foundation that comes with a positive feeding relationship. The good news is that no matter what your past has been or what your current situation might be with your children and the way you feed them, you can absolutely rebuild connection with them through a trusting feeding relationship.
What Does Trusting Feeding Relationship Look Like?
A trusting feeding relationship provides a concrete foundation for the parent-child relationship overall.
We can bring joy back to eating by enjoying a trusting feeding relationship, when we focus on what our jobs are and let our kids do their part. In the same way that any relationship with someone we care for involves certain responsibilities, the same can be applied to feeding our kids.
A positive feeding relationship involves 2 crucial parts:
1) Fulfilling our jobs with feeding our children, and
2) Trusting our kids to do their part with feeding.
Let’s break it down further:
What is involved with our responsibility in feeding our kids?
When it comes to feeding our kids, our main job as parents is to:
Determine what foods you are purchasing and having in the house
Regulating timing and structure of meals/snacks
Provide adequate food on a consistent basis
Offer a variety of foods that are nourishing and delicious
Provide a safe, nurturing environment for your child to learn how to eat
Enjoy eating with our children
Okay, so what about our kids. What is their job in the feeding relationship?
When it comes to eating, our kids have the jobs of:
Deciding whether or not they want to eat from the foods we have provided them
Deciding how much they want to eat from the foods we have provided them
Learning how to eat
Seems simple, right?
Well, if we’re being honest here, we both understand that eating and feeding our kids is not that straightforward, right?
So where does this get complicated?
When we don’t trust our kids to do their part with feeding, we can cross over into their territory and try to do their jobs for them. We might think our kids need to eat more or get more fruits and veggies in. Or we may think they need to eat less or not reach for a second helping at mealtimes. We might offer too little support or exert too much pressure. While these things are well intended, it communicates with our child that we don’t trust them with food and makes eating much more stressful for everyone involved.
What does it mean to trust our kids to do their part with feeding?
When we stay in our lane and let our kids stay in theirs, when there is no crossing of boundaries with feeding and eating, then TRUST is built in the feeding relationship between you and your child.
This can be HARD for so many reasons, and it’s important to get back to basics to understand potential factors that might make it difficult to trust your kid to do their part with eating.
Factors That Can Make It Hard to Trust Our Kids With Eating
Parents today face both internal and external stressors that influence whether or not we can fully trust our children to do their parts with eating.
Some of these stressors might include:
Being overly concerned about your child’s weight, growth, and diet.
Hearing outside comments from other parents, family members or professionals about your child’s growth, weight, body size, diet, etc.
Being overly concerned with your own diet, weight, eating habits, etc.
Overactive schedules that make it difficult to have regular family meals with your child
Having a fixated idea of what your child should look like or be
Being over-controlling or rigid with eating and feeding
Chaotic lifestyles that make it challenging to have structure or organization with meals and food
Misinformation about health and nutrition
Having a traumatic early feeding experience that makes you second-guess how your child eats (for example, parents who had a baby that had trouble gaining weight may constantly second-guess that their child is getting enough to eat)
A pervasive diet culture that stigmatizes people and children in larger bodies
Being the victim of bullying due to your appearance or body size (yourself or your child)
Having negative eating experiences in your own childhood
Struggling with physical or mental illness that makes it difficult to emotionally connect with your child
Having a history of chronic dieting, disordered eating, or an eating disorder
As you can see, there are a variety of factors that might cause you to pause and question if you can really trust your child to eat what they need to grow at a rate that is right for their own body. What is important to understand is how this can potentially be affecting your feeding relationship with your child.
Is Your Feeding Relationship With Your Child Suffering?
How can you tell if you have a positive and trusting feeding relationship with your child?
There are 4 key questions you can ask to figure this out:
Are you doing your job with feeding?
Are you respecting your child’s job with feeding?
Do you enjoy feeding your child?
Does your child enjoy eating?
If you answered ‘NO’ to any of the above questions, it may help to look closer at the current feeding relationship you have with your child. Please do this by giving yourself all the grace in the world and without self-criticism or judgement. Parenting and feeding our kids is a HUGE responsibility, and you have to remember that we are raising children in a world we didn’t grow up in.
It’s also important to remember that there are certain seasons of life or circumstances that might make it more challenging to feed your child. When these things come up, it’s okay to do the best that you can with the information and resources you have available.
When it comes to feeding our children, keep the big picture in mind: You ultimately want to raise a child who is a competent, confident and kind human being. A positive feeding relationship with your child will create a sturdy foundation from which he or she can grow and blossom into this human being.
How Can I Start Rebuilding Trust with My Child Around Food?
If you have found some clues that tell you your feeding relationship needs some nurturing, know that there is absolutely HOPE for change. Here are some steps that can help you rebuild trust with your child around food today:
Make time to reconnect around consistent family meals:
This is a painful truth, but if you are too busy to prioritize meals with your family, then it will be much harder to build a successful feeding relationship with your child. You have to create space and time on your calendar to make this happen. Gathering at the table regularly for family meals is an important place for you to reconnect with your child and build trust with them around food.
Remember to start with where you are at. If you aren’t currently having any family meals, aim to have at least 1 per week. Take an honest look at your schedule and see what needs to be reprioritized to make this happen. Family meals don’t have to be homemade or pretty to make them happen. Bust out the paper plates if you need to. If you want to build trust with your child around food, you have to gather often and regularly at the family meal table.
Offer food regularly and consistently:
When it comes to feeding kids, it’s important to anticipate your child’s hunger. As adults, we can often go long lengths of time without eating and sometimes expect our child to do the same or don’t realize that their stomachs are small and can only hold a small volume of food.
This is why they need regular and frequent meals/snacks. Kids need to know that food is always in their future and that they have reliable access to food at regular increments. Having a meal schedule and routine with feeding can make it easier for you to establish this in your own home.
Create a no-pressure feeding environment:
I’ve heard it said once that the best food is served in silence. What does this mean? It means that in order to build a positive feeding relationship with your child, you need to trust them to eat without commenting, coercing, bribing, etc. Your kids don’t need to know that broccoli is so healthy for them and therefore, they should eat it, or that they need to keep taking more bites of their meal before they can get dessert.
All these comments, though well-intentioned, inadvertently create pressure on our child and tell them we don’t trust them to eat. If you are regularly and consistently offering a variety of foods in a no-pressure environment, your child will eat what they need to support their health and growth.
This requires TRUST on your part and letting go of the urge to do this for them. Regularly offering a variety of nutritious foods in a no-pressure environment = getting a meal on the table and eating with your child rather than feeding him or her. We need to tick to our jobs with feeding and trust our kids to do theirs.
Respect your child’s feeding cues:
Along the lines of creating a no-pressure feeding environment is respecting your child’s autonomy and feeding cues. If they are not hungry and do not want to eat, remember - it is not your job to force them to eat. Kids intuitively know how much to eat and innately understand when to stop. Sometimes how much our kids eat looks differently from what we think they need to eat, but that doesn’t mean our judgement is correct.
Studies have found that excessive pressure to eat and restrictive feeding practices actually backfire, with children eating less when being pressured or more when being restricted. The only person who can know how much your child needs to eat is your child. If you can respect when you child is done eating at meal times and not pressure them to eat more or less, you can help rebuild trust with them around food.
Let go of your agenda with feeding and growth:
Without realizing it, many parents have a preconceived notion about how much their child should eat, how they should grow, and how their body size/type should turn out. But the reality is, these are all things that are completely outside our control and our feeding territory. If you’re feeding your child with these types of agendas, you will not be able to build a positive feeding relationship.
Research has found that parental concern about a child’s weight status creates negative approaches to feeding, including pressure-to-eat tactics (forcing a child to eat) and restrictive behaviors (not allowing a child to eat what they need). Ultimately, you don’t have to take responsibility for how your child’s body turns out - that is up to them and mother nature. Letting go of your agenda (or other people’s agenda) will allow you to fully trust your child without reservation and improve your feeding interactions.
Rebuild your feeding intuition:
If you have not had a positive upbringing with respect to food, it will be harder for you to provide your child with positive eating experiences and pleasant meal times. We innately repeat what we’ve learned from our own upbringing unless there is a proactive intention to change and do differently. Ultimately, we can’t take our children where we haven’t gone ourselves.
If you have any anxiety or uncertainty about feeding yourself and your children, it WILL affect the way you feed them. Your child will feel about eating that way you feel about feeding. You can change this by healing your own relationship with food and your body, learning to trust your own body and feed yourself well, and making nourishment and body kindness a priority. Learning to accept your own body will help you accept your child’s body and who they are meant to be. Modeling intuitive eating and body respect will build your confidence in feeding your own child.
Do your job with feeding - the rest is up to your child.
You can bring joy back to eating and enjoy a trusting feeding relationship when you focus on what your job is and let your kids do their part.
Another way to think about this is with how we help our children with other aspects of their learning and development. Take sleeping for example: Sleeping and rest is something that our children innately need and do (though I’m sure some of you might beg to differ with me!).
We can help our child create healthy sleep routines and habits. We can provide a nurturing and safe environment for sleeping. But ultimately, it is our child’s job to sleep. Their bodies know how much rest they need, and this can change from day to day, depending on their age and season of life. We can’t do it for them (though I’m sure many of us wish we could!). Eating and feeding is the same way - we have to do our part as parents and let our kids do theirs.
The beauty of this process is that it is something that can be applied to all ages and stages of raising kids - from newborns to teens. You can build trust with your child around food at every step of the journey. If you haven’t started yet, you can start today, no matter where you and your kids are. Kids are amazingly adaptable, which can make it doable to heal and feeding relationship and build trust with parenting.
What questions do you have about building a trusting feeding relationship with your child? Where do you find yourself getting stuck? You’ve got this, mama!