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Growing Competent Eaters: Pearls from NC’s Shifting the Feeding and Eating Conversation Workshop.

April 9, 2020

Author: Candace Aqui is a consultant for Nutrition Connections, and is passionate about children’s relationships with food. Fortunately, she has a 5 year old son to work with.

As a mother, registered dietitian, and someone who strives to be a continuous learner (especially about all things food), I was thrilled to lead the development of a workshop to explore a topic that combines all my personal and professional interests. On March 5th, 2020, Nutrition Connections hosted a workshop in partnership with the Ellyn Satter Institute (ESI) to introduce and explore the models of feeding dynamics and eating competence. The focus of these models is the “how” of eating, and not the “what”, and they feature the division of responsibility as the key to developing eating competence. This workshop was timely, as the 2019 Canada’s Food Guide includes messages designed to help consumers recognize that healthy eating is more than the food we eat. These models were developed by Ellyn based on research studies of feeding infants and children and her own clinical practice as an RD and a psychotherapist in private practice specializing in family-based treatment of eating disorders.

The focus of this workshop was on the early years. We know that an early start with helping children learn to eat and feed themselves sets them up on their path to becoming competent eaters. Our facilitators for the day were Anne Blocker and Jennifer Harris, both registered dietitians with long-standing experience with implementing the models in various clinical settings, as well as working with people of all ages. We began the workshop with identifying our most pressing questions we face in our practice. There were many! They also engaged us by asking us to think about the child we brought with us to the workshop. Who are the children in our lives that we care about who would benefit from the knowledge we would gain over the course of the workshop? For many, including myself, our own children’s well-being was front and centre.

While there were many “aha” moments and learning gems from the workshop, here are the top 6 that stood out for me:

  • Feeding is parenting: Recognizing that the structure we put in place for children around other aspects of their lives (think screen time, physical activity, sleep schedules) also applies to feeding. 
  • The concept of a hierarchy of food needs: There are basic needs to be met (such as having enough food) before we can conceptualize and act on other food needs (such as trying novel foods).
  • Developmentally appropriate eating skills: Learning to eat follows a developmental pattern just like other aspects of a child’s growth and development. Children will learn to feed themselves competently if parents provide the structure for them to do so. 
  • The division of responsibility is an authoritative parenting approach: Parents provide and enforce practical rules, but the child’s opinions, desires and capabilities are respected. This translates into distinct jobs and roles for children and their parents in the feeding relationship.
  • Family meals are more than eating together: While creating pleasant, pressure-free mealtimes, parents can use mealtimes to demonstrate how to behave at the table (e.g. politely say no, ask to leave the table when they are done). These skills will serve children well into adulthood.
  • It’s all about intent: Questioning the intention of the guidance, rules or directives we provide to children about eating and feeding will help us recognize whether we are using pressure or leading with trust.

In conversations I had with workshop participants, I learned that this workshop provided an opportunity to deepen their understanding of feeding dynamics and eating competence models. Many had questions about the evidence that underpins the models, and their questions were answered. Others worked with children with very specific health issues such as autism or eating disorders. Anne and Jen drew on their extensive experience to provide practical tips that they could apply to their own clients and patients. The workshop also provided an outlet for sharing success stories and creative solutions for feeding and eating challenges, and connecting with others to share stories and support each other.

So, what’s next? We are excited to be working with the Ellyn Satter Institute to plan future training and knowledge-building events to meet your needs. Whether you work in healthcare, early childhood education, recreational programming for kids, or just want to learn about bringing joy back into feeding and eating for you and your family, we are here to support you. Thank you to the all workshop participants and Anne and Jennifer from ESI for making the day such a rich learning opportunity. Looking back on the day and considering how our work has changed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, I’m grateful for opportunity to be among my colleagues and learning together.

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