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Fostering “Eating Competence”

“I’m always worried that my child isn’t getting enough nutrition. He will only eat certain foods and often leaves half his lunch.” Eating issues can be worrisome for parents—a child who doesn’t eat lunch, a picky eater, a child who only eats white foods or demands sweets.

When there are concerns and struggles over food, it’s easy to forget one of the most important components of children getting the vital nourishment they need from what they eat—the connection of food with free-flowing love.

In our culture, with competing diets and changing assertions about which foods are bad for us and good for us, it’s easy to forget about the importance of associating eating with happiness and well-being, rather than worry and restriction.

Can you remember times as a child when eating brought a sense of comfort and love? I remember that when our family ate ravioli or my mother’s incredible potato salad, my siblings and I rarely argued. Think about the nourishment provided by meals you have had that were specially prepared and served with love.

Sometimes the pressure to ensure our children eats “healthy foods” can make us forget what it’s like to be a child—how strange new foods can taste, how coercion to eat certain foods makes us resist them. It’s important for parents to act as if that they think children can make good choices when it comes to eating and view children’s explorations of food as a learning experience. It’s normal to have food preferences, and we feel validated when people notice our favorite foods and honor our aversions to certain textures and tastes. Our individual predilections for food reflect our genetic make-up and neurodiversity.

Dietician and family therapist Ellyn Satter has developed the term “eating competence” to describes children’s abilities to develop a joyful, positive relationship with food. She urges parents to believe that a child knows how much they need to eat and will eventually learn to eat food the family enjoys. We want to trust that children will eat at their own pace, some days a lot, others not so much, but they will determine how hungry they are.

It’s important for children to learn to tune in to the way their bodies feel—when they are hungry or when they are full. With eating disorders on the rise in adolescents, an emphasis on feeling happy with food and with one’s own body is the best prevention for later ills.

It's nice to replace worry about food with a focus on making meal times and discussions about food happy and enjoyable. There are many resources online and in person, to help parents make healthy eating a stress-free topic and mealtimes convivial and fun.

Here are two resources you might find helpful:

Kids Eat In Color is an online program for “parents of picky children who want to reduce stress and get their children on the road to eating more foods.”

Nutritionist and family therapist Ellyn Satter’s “Eating Competence” model is about “being positive, comfortable, and flexible with eating as well as matter-of-fact and reliable about getting enough to eat of personally enjoyable, nourishing food.”


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