Feeding 101: The Where, When, & How

Feeding 101: The Where, When, & How

The feeding relationship between a parent and child involves more than what’s on the plate: it’s about the where, when, and how of feeding. (1) For many parents, the most urgent question is “What should I feed my baby or child to help them be healthy?” Our focus on the “what” often makes us forget that “how” is just as crucial a component to feeding. The "how" refers to how meals are structured, the level of mindfulness that occurs while eating and responding to internal cues of hunger and fullness. Without minimizing the importance of “what,” it’s critical to highlight the “how” of feeding and its impact on a child's developing relationship with food.  With the current obesity epidemic affecting our youngest eaters, we  are trained to spot foods that are healthy or unhealthy. If we’re looking for a recipe for success, let’s shift our focus to making mealtime a pleasant experience, where all members of the family enjoy coming to the table and knowing that they can eat something fulfilling in every way!

According to Ellyn Satter, MS, RDN, MSSW, a Registered Dietitian and Family Therapist and renowned expert on feeding kids, a child is a competent eater when he/she:

  • Feels good about eating
  • Enjoys meals and behaves nicely at mealtimes
  • Picks and chooses from foods you make available
  • Determines for herself how much to eat

Seems pretty simple and straightforward. For most parents, however, getting there means letting kids not finish their meals or leave leftovers on their plates. When parents don’t let this happen, food battles ensue (and parents always lose a food battle). This is what is meant by the "how" of eating and it’s not ideal for creating lifelong healthy eating habits. And get this — according to a study (2) to be published in the International Journal of Obesity, kids only eat about 60% of what they put on their plate when their parents aren’t around. Researchers say this is because children are learning about what foods they like and how much it takes to get full. Another study with adults (3) show they eat over 90% of the food on their plate. What does this mean on the food battle front?

“…[T]o a loving, but frustrated, parent who wants their non-cooperating child to be a vegetable-eating member of the clean plate club, these lab results provide a powerful hidden value,” says lead researcher, Brian Wansink. “They show that a child who only eats half to two-thirds of the food they serve themselves isn’t being wasteful, belligerent, or disrespectful. They are just being normal children.”

What does that mean for you? In short, try to be patient as your child discovers her innate ability to self regulate food intake. It’s a key “how” and an important 21st century skill for nutrition.

Your child may not like everything that you serve — and that's OK. Let your child listen to their internal cues for hunger and satiety. Let their pediatrician monitor their growth and provide  indicators of whether they are getting enough to eat. Try for success one meal at a time and understand that what you see may not necessarily be resistance, bad manners, or a battle cry. Instead of focusing on the “what,” focus on the “how” and enhance the quality of time together at the table. Bon appetit!


  1. Satter, Ellyn. Feeding dynamics: Helping children to eat well. Journal of Pediatric Health Care. 1995; 9.4: 178-184.
  2. Wansink, Brian and Katherine A. Johnson (2014). Adults Only: Why Don't Children Belong to the Clean Plate Club? International Journal of Obesity, forthcoming.
  3. International Journal of Obesity (20 June 2014) | doi:10.1038/ijo.2014.104

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