Responsive eating is healthy eating in kids, say dieticians

Two dietitians are working to make mealtime a little easier for some families on Prince Edward Island.

Misty Rossiter is an associate professor and Katrina Nagge is a researcher at the University of Prince Edward Island.

They interviewed 11 parents across PEI to understand how parents know when children are hungry or full, if parents use food as a reward, and what their experiences are like eating as a family.

Their research also focused on mealtime struggles and identified responsive feeding as a positive strategy.

“Responsive feeding is when a child’s hunger and fullness are acknowledged and respected,” said Rossiter.

Misty Rossiter says their research shows responsive feeding, which is when a child’s hunger and fullness are acknowledged and respected, is a key to a healthy relationship with eating. (Kirk Pennell/CBC)

Mealtime on PEI

The research reflects a lot of what Island parents are experiencing.

“From six months of age we just started giving her real food,” said Kat Fairbairn, a mom of three, speaking about her youngest child.

She said she didn’t do that with her four year old. and believe this is why she is now a fussy eater.

“Because I did purees and fed her up until she was maybe like one and a half,” said Fairburn.

The research shows she may be right about that.

“You’d kind of provide food and an environment that’s appropriate to where the child is at with their feeding skills,” said Nagge.

That also means using utensils when they know how, she said.

Toddler playing in Victoria Park.
Joshua Darrah said his daughter “starts playing with her food,” which the dietitians say is a fullness cue. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

Joshua Darrah’s daughter, Lily, gives verbal cues when she’s full.

“She makes it pretty clear. When she’s done, she says ‘all done, all done.’ She also starts playing with her food and throwing it on the ground when she doesn’t want anymore,” said Darrah.

The dietitians said playing with food is a fullness cue.

“We typically do three meals a day as a family and then some snacks in between usually breakfast and lunch,” said Alice Hallstrom, mom of three.

The study also said family meal time is important for developing healthy habits.

‘Fussy’ eating

The research shows that parents may feel frustration when their children change what and how much they eat.

The biggest change happens as they grow from infancy to toddlers, because toddlers grow at a relatively slower rate than babies, so they don’t need as much food, according to the research.

“Their growth is slowing, so they’re not requiring as much food as they did when they are growing really rapidly,” said Nagge.

They said it is normal for children to refuse foods they once enjoyed.

“They’re becoming a little bit more independent. They’re learning what they like and what they don’t like,” said Nagge.

It can take up to 15 exposures before a child wants to eat something, she said, but their diets tend to become more varied by the age of four to six.

“It’s not that there’s something wrong with your child or it’s not that you’re doing a bad job as a parent,” said Nagge. “These are all very normal.”

person looking into camera
Katrina Nagge says it’s normal for toddlers to eat less than their infancy because their rate of growth starts slowing down. (Submitted by Katrina Nagge)

Bribing children with food

“Sometimes parents will use like dessert or less healthy foods to encourage them to eat more of their healthy foods,” said Nagge, adding that the problem is that it puts certain foods on a pedestal.

“It encourages them to not listen to their food fullness cues and to ignore signals that their body is telling them that they’re done.”

She said forcing a child to eat past when they feel full is linked to poor relationships with food, chronic disease and chronic overeating as the child grows.

“Whether it’s parents or educators as well, their job or their role in feeding is to decide what kinds of foods are offered and where,” said Rossiter.

When to call for help

Certain issues may require a health-care team such as a dietitian, a speech language pathologist, or an occupational therapist, said Nagge.

“If parents are noticing, like children rejecting certain textures or they’re having any difficulties chewing or swallowing that could be contributing to like difficult mealtimes, then those would be more of a need for intervention,” she said.

“Try to reach out to a registered dietitian who might be able to help you through this challenging time, and maybe provide some strategies to make mealtimes a little bit easier.”

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