Nutritionists say responsive eating is healthy eating in children

Nutritionists say responsive eating is healthy eating in children

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

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

They interviewed 11 parents across Prince Edward Island to understand how parents know when children are hungry or full, whether 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 recognized and respected,” Rossiter said.

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

Mealtime in Prince Edward Island

The research reflects much of the suffering of the island’s parents.

“From the age of six months, we just started feeding her real food,” Kat Fairburn, a mother of three, said of her youngest child.

She said she never did it with her four-year-old. She thinks that’s why she’s now such a picky eater.

“Because I’ve been making purees and fed her until she was probably like one and a half,” Fairborn said.

Research shows she may be right.

“You can provide a type of food and a suitable environment for where the child is with his feeding skills,” Nagy said.

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

A child playing in Victoria Park.
Joshua Dara said his daughter “starts playing with her food,” which nutritionists say is evidence of fullness. (Rick Gibbs/CBC)

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

“She made it very clear. When she’s finished, she says ‘It’s all done, it’s all’. She also starts playing with her food and throwing it on the floor when she doesn’t want to.”

Nutritionists said playing with food is a signal of satiety.

“We usually have three meals a day as a family and then some snacks between breakfast and lunch,” said Alice Hallström, mother of three.

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

Eating “Picky”

Research shows that parents may feel frustrated when their children change what and how much they eat.

The biggest change happens when 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 slows down, so they don’t need as much food as they did when they were growing too fast,” Nagy said.

They said it was normal for children to refuse foods they used to enjoy.

“They are becoming a little bit more independent,” Nagy said. “They learn what they like and don’t like.”

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

“It’s not that there is something wrong with your child or it doesn’t mean that you are doing a bad job as a parent,” Nagy said. “It’s all very normal.”

person looking at camera
Katrina Nagy says that it is normal for young children to eat less than in their childhood because their growth rate begins to slow. (Provided by Katrina Nagy)

Bribing children with food

“Sometimes parents use sweets or less healthy foods to encourage them to eat more healthy foods,” Nagy said, adding that the problem is that she puts some foods on a pedestal.

“It encourages them not to listen to the cues of being full and to ignore the cues that their bodies are telling them they are finished.”

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

“Whether it’s parents or teachers as well, their job or role in nutrition is to decide what types of foods are served and where they are served,” Rossiter said.

When to ask for help

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

“If parents are noticing, such as children who refuse certain textures or have any chewing or swallowing difficulties which can contribute to such difficult meal times, then that would be more in need of intervention,” she said.

“Try to reach out to a registered dietitian who may be able to help you through this difficult time, and perhaps offer some strategies to make meal times a little easier.”

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