5 Boundaries that Make Feeding Children Easier

I get asked a lot of questions about feeding kids—of all ages! I find that much of my advice goes back to helping parents set boundaries around food and eating, so I thought this post would help provide some practical tips for day-to-day feeding. You can read more about positive feeding approaches in my post about authoritative feeding here.

1. “Ask First” Policy. I learned ‘ask before you take’—anything—when I was a kid. Maybe you’d call that a traditional or archaic way to approach children today, but I have carried on the tradition with my own children. Not only does it extend to play dates/going out and borrowing clothes (yep, my teens do that now), it also involves eating, especially when it occurs off the usual schedule. Remember, parents are a food filter, or nutritional gatekeeper, and asking first keeps that filter in place. Equally important, having children ask first helps parents stay on top of their child’s eating—from how much is eaten to food selection.

Sample Dialogue: “Are you hungry? If so, it’s polite to ask first before helping yourself. Let’s figure out together what we can do .”

2. The Kitchen is Closed. I wrote about this earlier here. Closing the kitchen helps children eat at the designated time–meals and snacks. This can help curtail grazing and ultimately, excessive eating. While it sends a clear message to children that eating occurs with a structure, it also places the onus on the parent to stay on top of meals and snacks.

Sample Dialogue: “Lunch is over and the kitchen is closed. We’ll open back up at snack time, which is at 3 pm. Here, I’ll show you (on the clock) what 3 o’clock looks like.”

3. A Set Schedule. While you don’t have to be rigid about the timing of meals and snacks, a set schedule helps build predictability and rhythm with eating, and food security. Be flexible but not loose. That is, allow some wiggle room around the timing of meals if needed, but don’t be unpredictable. Kids like to know when they can expect to eat, and generally what will be served. Read here for more about the frequency of meals and snacks as your child ages.

Sample Dialogue: “We have a lot going on tonight, so dinner will be a little bit later than usual. You can expect to eat around 7 pm. You may want to have a bigger snack after school to carry you to dinnertime.”

4. Parent at the Helm. It’s not always easy to stay in the role of nutrition leader, but it’s important to fortify the boundaries you have set around nutrition and food. Sometimes children need a reminder of who’s in charge. And when children turn into teens, it may become even more important! Don’t be hesitant to have conversations about the Division of Responsibility with your child or teen, covering your role as provider and their role as consumer.

Sample Dialogue: “I appreciate that you want something else, but this is what we have on the menu today. You can choose to eat or not. Let’s talk about how we can work in what you want over the next day or so. Will that work?”

5. Allow Reasonable Choice. One of the cornerstones of being a good feeder is to give your child a voice when it comes to food preferences and amounts. But some parents make the mistake of giving too much choice, and that makes staying in charge harder. A good rule of thumb is to offer two or three choices within the same category. This is effective with all ages, as you can see below.  If your child is resistant be open to dialogue about an alternative. Bottom line: reasonable choice gives children the indication that you remain in control of feeding, but they have a say in the matter.

Sample Dialogue: “Would you like sweet potato or corn with dinner tonight?”

“Do you want me to make a plate for your late dinner, or do you want to gather it yourself from the fridge when you get home?”

“Before you leave for school, do you want a smoothie or toast with peanut butter?”

Do you have boundaries around food and eating at home? What are they?

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