No Bargaining Needed

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About a month ago, I was watching one of my usual TV shows when a commercial came on for Ore-Ida French fries. Normally, I would skip ahead using my DVR fast forward button, but something made me pause. The commercial starts with a young girl and her father sitting at the family dinner table. The girl has a plate with broccoli on it. She pushes it away with a look of disgust on her face, her father pushes the plate back in front of her, and this gets repeated a couple of times until dad whips out three crinkle cut French fries in his hand. Immediately, the girl smiles, takes a bite of her broccoli, and then happily grabs the French fries. Meanwhile, the voiceover narrates: “Is mealtime a struggle? Introducing Ore-Ida Potato Pay. Where Ore-Ida Golden Crinkles are your crispy currency to pay for bites of this [broccoli] with this [French fries]. When kids won’t eat dinner, Potato Pay them to. Ore-Ida. Win at mealtime.”

Um, what now? Wow. Now, as the mother of a toddler who isn’t the most adventurous or enthusiastic eater, I get that parents often struggle at mealtimes with their kids. As parents, especially parents of young children, we are the “gatekeepers” of meals and snacks, deciding what food will be served and when. There is a lot of pressure on parents to make sure their kids are getting just the right amount – not too much, not too little – of nutrient-dense foods to ensure optimal health. Even prior to birth, mothers are reminded to eat as nutritiously as they can to give their developing baby the best chance of being healthy. This concern continues with infants, as many parents struggle with figuring out if breastfeeding, bottle feeding, and/or formula works best for them. And as these infants grow and eventually start eating solids, the worries about getting enough nutrition while avoiding “empty calories” commence. It’s stressful to be in charge of what your kids are eating (or not eating)!

As Jonah and I have written about previously, we believe that Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility (DOR) is the best way to help one’s children become competent intuitive eaters. In short, the DOR states that parents or caregivers decide what food will be served, at what intervals food will be served, and where food will be served. Children, on the other hand, are in charge of eating (or not eating) the offered food and how much they eat of said food. Parents/caregivers are encouraged to offer a wide variety of foods at meals and snacks, including not only “nutrient dense” options but also foods that the general public might consider to be “fun foods” that are high in sugar, fat, and/or salt. When using these strategies, children learn to trust their hunger and fullness cues, develop their palates, and learn to eat in a satiating and enjoyable way. They also learn that foods don’t have moral value; for instance, broccoli isn’t inherently superior to French fries, and all foods fit.

Clearly, bribing your child to eat their vegetables (or other foods they don’t want to eat) with “fun foods” is the exact opposite of the DOR. This teaches kids that they can’t trust their own bodies to tell them what and how much to eat. It teaches kids that the only way to eat broccoli is to choke it down in order to earn French fries. It takes all agency away from the child and turns the parent/caregiver into the food warden. Instead of helping kids try and figure out what foods they enjoy (which could include broccoli!), this technique basically punishes kids for having preferences. It can and will create even more stress and power struggles around mealtimes.

Look, I get it. I, myself, have had to curb my instinct to try to push more “nutritious” foods on our daughter when all she seems to want to eat are the high fat, salty or sugary foods. I want her to be healthy! I don’t want her to have nutrient deficiencies! But I also have to remind myself that intervening in her side of the DOR is overstepping my bounds and that by putting some foods up on a pedestal and pushing them on her, I would be teaching her that foods are either “good/healthy” or “bad/unhealthy.” Instead, I want her to know that all foods fit and that I trust her body to tell her when it is feeling more in the broccoli mood or in the French fry mood. I know that she will eventually get plenty of messages around food from her peers, teachers, and TV, but I hope that by instilling the principles of intuitive eating and DOR early on, I can prevent her from getting sucked into diet and wellness culture.

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