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FOR RELEASE: September 20, 2002
Nutritious Eating Habits Teach Toddlers Healthy Eating Habits for Life
Teaching toddlers to be successful at the family table is critical, says feeding expert Ellyn Satter, nationally known children's nutrition specialist. Satter combines her expertise in nutrition with her training as a counselor/therapist specializing in the treatment of eating disorders. She was the featured speaker at a recent training seminar, "Feeding with Love and Good Sense in WIC," for professionals working statewide in the Oklahoma State Department of Health (OSDH) Women, Infants and Children (WIC) Service.
Satter says that parents of 1- to 3-year-olds arrive in her office or at her presentations with an all-too-familiar list of concerns and frustrations about feeding. They say their child doesn't eat enough, especially of meat, vegetables and fruits. They complain that their child only eats a few foods, over and over again. They object to their child dawdling with food or pushing too much food into their mouth at one time. Some worry that their child drinks too much milk; others worry that their child doesn't drink enough.
"These behaviors are all normal," emphasizes Satter, "and if parents hold steady with feeding, the child's eating will even out." Research shows, however, that parents have fallen into feeding approaches that will backfire. In the face of food refusal, more than 70 percent of parents of toddlers offer the child an alternative; many parents let their children graze for food between meal times, eating whatever and whenever they want.
Satter points out that while the toddler's erratic eating and food refusal are normal, the way parents react is absolutely critical. "Limiting the menu to what toddlers readily accept will produce a finicky child," says Satter. "To learn to like new foods, children have to see them again and again on the family table. If parents don't put pressure on eating, eventually children learn to like most foods that parents eat. Children who are allowed to graze for food don't get the learning opportunity. After all, when a child panhandles for food, he doesn't beg for broccoli, he begs for a cookie!"
Satter says toddlers who are allowed to graze for food often grow poorly; some grow too fast, and some grow too slowly. "With all of today's concern about childhood obesity, it's ironic that the single most potentially helpful approach to prevention is overlooked: structured meals and snacks," she says. Satter frequently sees toddlers gaining too much weight when they are allowed to run the show with eating. Weight gains are generally moderate early on, but all too often they set the stage for drastic weight gain later.
One mother expressed the feelings of many young parents when she said, "I can't tell my son 'no' because I am afraid he won't like me." Her son began dictating the family menu and grazing for food when he was a toddler. He gained a little weight. Worse, he was set up for an alarming weight gain when he was 4 years old, during a time of family stress. The boy needed the limits, and without them, his anxiety - and his eating - got out of control.
In her recently released book, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family (Kelcy Press, 1999), Satter teaches parents how to make family meals a rewarding reality. She stresses that adults as well as children should depend on structured meals to do better with eating. "If you have a meal coming and you know it is going to be something you enjoy, you can forget about eating until it's time.
Whether you know it or not, if you wait until hunger drives you to figure out what to eat, you'll scare yourself." Don't make children ask you for food before you think about meals or you will scare them, too, she emphasizes. Meals have to be your idea, and you need to bring them out at reliable times.
Satter suggests maintaining a division of responsibility in feeding: Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding, children are responsible for the how much and whether of eating. At regular meals and snacks, let children eat all they want. Between times, refuse food handouts, including requests for all beverages except water. "Keep in mind," reminds Satter, "that having regular meals and snacks and saying 'no' to between-time food begging is not restricting - it is good feeding. Moreover, it is a powerful intervention, just as turning off the TV and encouraging them to find something else to do is not depriving - it is good parenting."
For more information about child health and nutrition, contact the WIC office nearest you or call OSDH WIC Service at (405) 271-4676.
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