A few weeks ago, I had the honor of meeting Marsha Dunn Klein. Marsha is an Occupational Therapist, with Mealtime Notions, with over 40 years experience working with children with severe feeding issues and their families. I have read about Marsha’s work for most of my career. So, for me, meeting her was like meeting a celebrity.
Marsha Dunn Klein shared with me this video about eating grasshoppers. Yes! You read that right, grasshoppers! The video is a story about Marsha's experience in eating something new. It gives a great example of how someone can take small steps towards trying something new. There's a lot of gray area between not eating something and taking a big bite of a new food.
Marsha’s work as an OT is aligned with Responsive Feeding, an approach to feeding that focuses on the hunger and fullness cues of a child. It's also a philosophy of some professionals, including myself, in treating children and adolescents with feeding and eating issues. Responsive Feeding is in contrast to the methods of Behavioral Feeding Programs, that involve defined protocols for “training” or “retraining” children how to eat. Responsive feeding is based on the idea that feeding is a conversation between a caregiver and a child. If we ignore what the child is telling us with their eating (or not eating), we will end up pressuring or forcing the child to eat. We know pressure doesn’t help a child learn to eat well in the long run. Or, in constrast, we may end up being too permissive and not helping out child develop their eating skills.
Child Development and Feeding
I’ve been thinking about Marsha's grasshopper story in the last few weeks. I’m in the midst of writing a developmentally appropriate nutrition curriculum for preschool and elementary schools with my colleague, Katherine Zavodni, RD. Through this work, I’ve been learning more about child development. I’ve learned about Vygotsky’s Zone of Proximal Development. Vygotzky, a Soviet psychologist, defined The Zone of Proximal Development to be the “distance between the most difficult task a child can do alone and the most difficult task the child can do with help.” Children can learn on the outer edge of their Zone of Proximal Development with “scaffolding” or assistance from teachers, peers or parents.
Authoritarian vs. Permissive Feeding: Finding the Middle Ground
We know being authoritarian with feeding, putting pressure on children to eat a certain amount or certain foods, doesn’t help children expand their variety, and often backfires. An example of this is telling a child that they "must clean their plate." The opposite of an authoritarian feeding style, as described by Ellyn Satter, is
Structure or "Scaffolding" to Support Your Child
Here are some examples of how a parent provides structure or as Vygotsky would call it “scaffolding” with food:
- Establishing timing of meals and snacks so that the child arrives at meal and snack times hungry, but not starving.
- Deciding what is offered at meals and snacks, and not short order cooking.
- Offering avenues to try new foods - a familiar sauce or dip for the child to have with a less familiar food.
- Providing a child an opportunity to explore a food in different ways. This may include smelling it, licking it, kissing it, rubbing it on their lips and allowing them to spit it out, if they choose. If this isn’t accepted meal time behavior, you could experiment at a non-eating time.
- Decreasing anxiety at meal time by allowing a child to serve their own plate and having a familiar food on the table.
- Serving combination meals, like a taco bowl or salad, "deconstructed" so that the child can try the meal with he ingredients of their choosing.
- Not always serving the item "made to order." For example, a child may prefer cheese quesadillas, but one night you may decide to put black beans or some chicken in everyone's quesadilla. Or making a pizza for the whole family and having the child "pick off" what they choose not to eat.
- When out to eat, asking a child to pick something unique to the restaurant, rather than defaulting to the kids menu of acceptable foods. For example, picking a Chinese dish at a Chinese restaurant, rather than mac 'n cheese.
- Asking a child to help you prepare an unfamiliar food.
- Preparing an unfamiliar food in a familiar way. For example, serving breaded fish sticks, as a bridge to eating fish in other ways.
"The Ask"- What Can Your Child Handle?
When I talked with Marsha a few weeks ago, I heard her say several times that “the ask” needed to not be too big. “The ask” would be really big for me if someone asked me to have a grasshopper taco, but I could have a taco with a small piece of grasshopper inside. That’s a smaller “ask.” There is a way to support and “ask” our children to try new things and this must look different for each child so it doesn’t feel like pressure. Permissive feeding may be not ever asking and authoritarian feeding may be having a "big ask" with lots of pressure.
"The ask" may not be saying “Will you please eat the hamburger?” The ask may be having the child tolerate the hamburger on the table or plate. Or, “the ask” may be suggesting without pressure, they have a very small piece of burger in their bun and see what that’s like. Or, suggesting or modeling for the child to take the hamburger out of the bun and dipping it in ketchup (if ketchup is familiar and accepted). When we say not to pressure a child, it doesn’t mean
Look for Marsha Dunn Klein’s book that she is currently working on titled Anxious Eaters.