On the go: get structured about mealtime this summer with Ellyn Satter

Looking for a little summer structure? Ellyn Satter tells us how to maintain mealtime routines (even when you’re on the go!)

Courtesy of the Ellyn Satter Institute

An internationally recognized authority on eating and feeding, Ellyn Satter is perhaps best known for several best-selling books including Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family and Child of Mine.  Her pioneering division of responsibility principle  has changed mealtime for many families in our Better Together community—and we’ve all benefited from her advice on picky eating. We connected with her recently to ask about travelling with kids, and how to keep mealtime routines in place...even if you’re headed on a road trip this summer! Here’s what she had to say.

Better Together: Can you tell us a little about your approach to family meals?

Ellyn Satter: First of all, I think family meals are very important. The thesis for my recommendations about feeding is the division of responsibility in feeding. Parents do the “what, when and where” of feeding, and children do the “how much” and “whether” of eating. For the parent to maintain structure, it’s critically important for them to do a good job of feeding and for them to position their children to do a good job with eating. By structure, I mean regular sit-down meals at more-or-less predictable times, and I mean sit-down snacks between times, and not letting children graze for food or beverage in between. (So my approach is that), the parent gets the meal on the table, and once they’ve got everybody rounded up and ready to sit down together to eat the meal, it’s up to the child to decide how much they will eat or even whether they will eat of the food that the parent puts on the table.

BT: And if they decide not to eat?

ES: “Meals” doesn’t really say anything about what to eat, it says everything about structure—it’s structure that is critically important to children. They depend on structure to have the security of knowing that they are going to be fed. Also, not having caloric beverages or food in between lets them come to meals hungry and able to do as good a job as possible in eating the food that’s provided for them. Structure also gives that all-important family time, which children really do need, when they can have reliable access to their parents and they can have pleasant family time together.

BT: In your experience, what are the most important skills parents role-model at meal time?

ES: Enjoying the food. Also, making mealtimes pleasant: to do that, they let everybody attend to their own eating, they make pleasant conversation, they don’t put up with negative behavior. And they have the attitude that family meals are important: it’s a pleasant place to be and we all enjoy coming together and taking an interest in the food.

BT: Now that it's summer, we're getting excited about camping trips and family vacations. Do you have any tips for us on maintaining meal routines while the whole family's on the go?

ES: Well, let me tell you a story about my grandchildren. At the time they were 4 and 2, and they were going through a museum. It got to be snacktime, and their mother hauled out the snacks. While they were waiting for her to get them all lined up they went and sat down on a little windowsill, and then they ate the snack and were on their way. It was such an expectation for them that they would sit down and eat that snack that it was built into the activity. You have to be flexible—just keep the idea of the structure of a sit-down meal (even if all they want to do at a rest stop is run around and play, and you end up feeding them in the car later). It’s more challenging, but if you think of a meal as being when you share the same food, and sit down together and enjoy each other; at times there can be a meal in the car. People make it work in different ways: structure is the essential thing.  If you’re hung up on “healthy” and “unhealthy” it can make life a lot more complicated when you’re on vacation—but we’re not hung up on that, we’re hung up on structure—which is more achievable.

BT: We usually ask our interviewees for a recipe, so we’re curious: do you have a recipe for structure you could share with us?

ES: Hmm, a recipe for structure: Mealtime routines and letting kids as soon as they’re able to help. Mealtime chores and setting things out for the meal—I think that’s an important meal-related activity. I tend not to complicate things more than you really have to.

Ellyn was also kind enough to share her recipe for her kids' (and grandkids'!) favourite childhood recipe—“Yellow” Spaghetti (aka Spaghetti Carbonara) If you’re looking for more resources for adding structure to your meals, be sure to check out our resources section - and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter for daily recipes you can make with your kids!

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