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Feeding the Child with Love & Limits

You probably already know that feeding the child is a big part of whether or not a child will grow up to enjoy eating and eat well. Learn how to feed a child with love and limits.

Your feeding style has a powerful influence over how well your child eats.

Research tells us that a diplomatic feeding style (formerly known as an authoritative style of feeding) is most effective at promoting a child’s self-regulated eating and positive relationship with food.

So, how can you become more diplomatic with feeding kids?

Mother feeding the child with love and limits

Your Feeding Style: For Better or Worse

All parents have a feeding style. You either inherit it from your own upbringing (Mom and Dad fed you like this so you feed your kids the same way) or you choose a different path for feeding your kids.

Regardless, you have a style and attitude when it comes to feeding your child.

The diplomatic feeding style incorporates regular times for meals and snacks, and sets limits on food and eating. It’s regarded as the most positive and effective way to feed children.

A diplomatic feeding style is tied to better self-regulation with eating. This means kids are good at starting and stopping eating depending on what their appetite signals tell them.

Some feeding styles, however, are less desirable. I cover this in my article, What’s Your Feeding Style?

In a nutshell, you can be controlling, indulgent or neglectful.

You can imagine these styles have poor outcomes. (Read the article to see what can happen…)

You may wonder, “Can I even change my feeding style?”  

Of course! This is an area of nutrition I include in all my trainings and books.

You can always teach an old dog new tricks…that’s the beauty of evolution.

And we, as parents, are all a masterpiece in the making…right?!

Little girls eating together.

8 Ways to Feed a Child with Love and Limits 

There are several ways to optimize feeding and become more diplomatic in your feeding style. Use the following tips to get started.

1. Use the Division of Responsibility (DOR) in Feeding  

Take on the job of deciding what foods you will serve (hopefully a nice balance of wholesome, healthy options!), where you will serve them (kitchen table, preferably), and when you will serve them.

Let your child decide whether he will eat what you’ve provided, and how much he will eat.

This is the crux of Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding and a key component to successfully feeding children.

2. Trust Your Child   

Ultimately, you want your child to self-regulate their eating. In other words, to figure out when they are hungry and when they are full.

The amounts of food they eat should reflect their appetite. Trust is reciprocal; you want your child to trust food, and you, and therefore you must reciprocate that trust.  

It’s natural for children to miss the mark on eating: overeating and under-eating is part of figuring out what works for your body.

Help your child figure out what works for him in a trusting environment.

3. Ditch the Plate Method

Instead of pre-plating your child’s food, opt for family-style meals. Serving meals family-style simply means placing food items on platters or in bowls.

Passing food around the table, aka “Walton-style” allows your child to refuse food or take an amount that is right for him.

Plating foods for your child takes control away from him, however, and makes you the regulator of what and how much is eaten.  

This may sabotage your child’s ability to learn self-regulation, a necessary tool for achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.

4. Provide Eating Opportunities, Don’t Use Food Restriction

Parents who take on a provider mentality take the job of feeding seriously. Just like the bread winner, the parent feeder is the bread “giver.”

A serious provider will have well-planned meals, a kitchen that is adequately stocked with “growing foods” (foods that support healthy growth in your child), and will prioritize family mealtime.

When you are timely with meals and snacks, your child will likely have a predictable hunger pattern. When you stock the kitchen with foods that contribute nutrition to your child’s diet, it’s easy to say “yes” when he is hungry and asks for food.  

Don’t make the mistake of restricting food. Research shows that restricting or controlling food intake is associated with overeating and weight gain in children.

Confusing? Remember the adage, “you want what you cannot have.” The same holds true with children and food.

smiling toddler ready for a healthy snack

5. Preparation x 3

The key to success is preparation, preparation, preparation. Plan the menu, gather the food, and make it!

But, don’t fall prey to being a short-order cook. Set the menu and stick to it.

6. Don’t Comment about Eating  

Children don’t need to be pressured about eating or not eating. The more you lay it on, the more self-conscious and bad your child feels, which may trigger overeating or not eating at all.

7. Give a Choice, Not an Ultimatum

Remember the guideline for toddlers? Give 2 choices. Older kids, three or maybe four options.

Would you like an apple with peanut butter, or crackers with peanut butter for your after-school snack?

Giving choices, but not too many, allows your child to make good decisions about food, while feeling in control of their body and their eating.

8. Keep a Pleasant Eating Environment  

What are meal times like in your home? Do your children argue, insult and put one another down, or throw temper tantrums at the meal table?

Do you get frustrated, shout, punish, or give the silent treatment? Meal times should be pleasant, supportive, and engaging.

Manners should be taught and used.

Keeping a positive attitude and reasonable expectations around mealtime manners, conversation, and interactions among family members will go a long way toward creating a mealtime environment in which your child wants to be a part.

Just a little movement toward feeding the child with a diplomatic approach can make a big difference in your child’s attitudes and actions about food and eating.

Try one “tip” and let me know how it goes!

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Need More Help with Feeding Kids?

Check out my on demand library of videos and my nutrition books! For videos, head to my YouTube channel!

This article was updated in February 2021.

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  1. Hello,
    Thank you for great posts. Within the division of responsibility around food and feeding what are your thoughts on the timing of snacks – E. Satter is pretty strict in terms of a snack between each meal but how to respond if your child is hungry and asks for food outside of the timing of a snack, even if it is a healthy request like an apple? Do you have any thoughts on kids who might ask for large quantitities of healthy foods – what is an appropriate response to avoid making the child feel limited while instilling appropriate portions? If a child wants three apples in one sitting is it appropriate to comment on the amount or say nothing?
    Thank you.

  2. There are a couple of things to think about here. In my home, fruits and veggies are always a “yes”, particularly if there is real hunger happening. The problem is that sometimes requesting food is habitual and not coming from hunger. This is something you will need to figure out. If there is real hunger, why is it happening so frequently? Look back to prior meals, and make sure they are adequate and composed of quality protein and whole grains. Often, kids don’t eat enough at meals to keep them satisfied, or they may be skipping meals, which will cause hunger later in the day, or perhaps there is a lot of energy burning activity happening. If meals seem adequate, then I would investigate other reasons, such as habitual concern with food, a need for attention (and asking for food has been an effective method in the past), and/or just being “out of touch” with hunger/fullness–you can help your child work on all of these through conversation and helping your child understand the signs of hunger and fullness.

  3. This is really helpful, thank you. My son is 16 months old, and he is a very picky eater. I’ve tried the DOR “trick”, as well as cutting down on the verbal expressions.
    Dr. Sears suggested a tray to be put out for toddlers, since it is hard to sit in a high chair for a squirmy toddler, but that only works when he is at his aunts house, who watches him during the mornings most days. When he is here, he doesn’t go near the food I leave out for him. He only eats when we put him in his booster seat.
    The other tricks I think I do pretty well, but it is still very hard getting him to eat, but like you said, I think I have to trust him that he is eating as much as he needs, that it is just his nature not to be a big eater.

  4. Thank you. If habitual eating, or testing limits is suspected do you have any suggestions on how to make food less of an issue? Would offering open access to fruits and vegetables help in this case or be a detriment?

  5. Have you tried pulling your child up to the table to eat with you and your husband? Picky-ness is normal and to be expected during the toddler years–I find that it is LESS about the child’s picky eating and MORE about the parental response. Don’t sweat it if your child refuses what you offer him, just keep offering variety and tasty foods with a neutral, seemingly uninvested attitude toward whether your child eats or not. He’ll eat when he’s hungry and stop when he’s full, just be sure to tune into his cues, and not stop him too early or force him to eat more. And, if you are on time with feeding (3 meals/3 snacks), he’ll have ample opportunity to make up calories if he shorted himself earlier.

  6. Maintaining a structure to feeding with timely meals and snacks and making sure you offer most of the food groups at meals will help toward satisfaction after meals. Beyond that, children should be fed when they are hungry. You may want to talk with your child about hunger and recognizing the signs/symptoms; open access to fruits and vegetables won’t necessarily harm your child, especially if simultaneously you are working towards more structure to mealtimes (see The Kitchen is Closed blog post), recognition of hunger/fullness, and meals that are satisfying to your child.