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Dinner with Ellyn Satter…

Posted by on Jan 24, 2011 in Blog Posts | 10 comments

I had the pleasure of bringing M down to meet Ellyn Satter on my last visit. My daughter is what brought me to Ellyn and this world of childhood feeding initially so this was extra special. I first talked to Ellyn when M was just over a year old.

It was touching to see them chatting away. As I expected, Ellyn was calm, pleasant, engaged, not pushy, warm and loving with the little ones. Then it was time for dinner.

We were at the home of a good  friend and colleague whose husband had prepared a yummy meal of spaghetti, marinara sauce, broccoli, salad and fruit for dessert. I wondered what M would eat- with Ellyn Satter at the table

On some level, I wanted M to “show” Ellyn what a great eater she is, (by default I suppose what a great feeder I am) but M only ate plain spaghetti and fruit, politely turning down the sauce and the broccoli. I bit my tongue, but wanted to assure everyone that M usually loves the sauce, and broccoli is one of her staple favorites. We all had a lovely meal, and the children were excused to play. I joked with Ellyn that it had gone relatively well considering, but I did share that M ate far less variety than usual. Ellyn was not concerned in the least. To paraphrase, “It’s perfectly normal when there’s excitement, or other children around. It’s why at pot-lucks kids often only eat dessert. It’s the only food that can compete with the excitement and playing with the other children.”  There was no bribing, whining or battles at the table, and no comments or judgment from the adults. All the children ate from what was on the table, stopped when they had enough and went off to play.

I’ve wrestled with this awareness of how my daughter is eating before– when at a boisterous party, M happened to get sick after dinner.  Inevitably during the meal I was asked what I do, and shared a bit. I talked a little about the Trust Model and how kids know how much to eat and can learn to eat a good variety. (While the other dads were enforcing their rules that the kids try some of everything and my daughter had 2 or 3 things chosen that she wanted to try- but mostly orange jello.)

So when she was sick, I was mortified. Did she overeat? Would the folks at the party think, “Ha, that woman has no clue what she’s doing!” I don’t even know what the issue was with M– if she did “overeat,” if the buzz of the six kids made it hard for her to tune in to her internal cues, if she had a bug… What  bothered me most was  that I was embarrassed.

I thought a lot about what I was feeling, because it’s just not fair that I felt on some level that M has to be perfect, or be a poster child at every meal or outing for my work or the feeding strategies I teach. (Most potlucks are interesting as M invariably starts with dessert while parents stand nearby enforcing various food rules, then she goes on to usually enjoy a variety of the offerings. See, even here I feel like I have to explain!)

I think many of us parents feel this way to some degree. If you bottle feed out of necessity or choice while your breast-feeding friends extol the benefits of “liquid gold…” If your little one doesn’t slurp down the salad, or has seconds on pasta…  If your child is plump… If you are fat, and your little one, lean or not has dessert… If one mom announces she wouldn’t let her child near “processed flour or sugar,” while your little one is munching on Teddy Grahams… What might you feel? (see post on feeding and judgement)

I have to be aware, as we all do, to stick with the program and not let our fear of judgment color how we feed or parent our kids. Only we get to see the pleasant meals day after day, the variety, the days when the kids hand back half an ice-cream cone, or ask for seconds on stir-fry. (We also get to see the whining for ice-cream or candy and the looks when it’s taco night, again…) Our kids won’t eat “perfectly” at every meal or snack, nor should they. As a society we need to chill out. Not judge each other so much, and most of all not judge ourselves so harshly.

What do you think?

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  1. Sam

    Another great post, thanks so much! I absolutely agree, and recognize many of your concerns as being true for myself at times. Expectations are everywhere, with our own being some of the most difficult. This is a great example of learning to let it be, and as you said, chill out!

  2. Lisa

    I think I love you too!

    I so appreciate your honesty when talking about your internal process as you take such good care of your daughter. When Experts and People in Positions of Authority are honest about their feelings and lack-of-perfection it is so freeing to the rest of us. We are all so judgemental of ourselves, so true. Sigh…..

    • katja

      thanks, I appreciate that. It is scary to be an “expert” at anything, especially with kids! It gets complicated. If you’re the parenting expert and your tween is mouthing off to you in public, is their judgment? What if you’re a marriage counselor and you’re having problems with your spouse? I heard a sermon at my Unitarian church about the difference between love and approval and how we confuse them so much in our culture. I think many of us were raised to seek approval. Interesting stuff we get to wrestle with as sentient beings! Well, I’ll leave off on the philosophising!

  3. The WellRounded Mama

    This was a great post. Despite my knowledge of Ellyn’s work and belief in it, I still struggle with the whole feeding judgment thing. But it’s hard to post and talk about it, because the judgment can come from all sides, FA included.

    Thank you for your unfiltered honesty. It’s nice to know that you struggle with it too, and to hear your internal debates about these things. It’s very reassuring to hear others working through this too. I hope you will keep posting about that sort of thing.

  4. Twistie

    Of course we question ourselves: our entire culture is based on the concept that we are incompetent eaters who cannot possibly do everything ‘right’ and therefore must be judged and found wanting. And since every news article, TV commercial, book, movie, and water cooler conversation assures us there is a One True Way to Eat, and they all contradict one another, we get flustered about the subject.

    Even when we find the fabulous alternative of trusting our own bodies and our own choices, it’s almost impossible to trust our own trust, if that makes any sense.

    The good news is that you and other mothers have opted out of the shame and are teaching their children to trust themselves, even when it’s very, very hard to rewire themselves to trust their children to know how eat what they need in their own way. It’s hard to clear a new path. It’s hard to march to a different drummer. The important thing is that M is learning how to make her own choices in her own way before she gets too many of the messages to ignore her own appetite.

    In many ways, your job is much, much harder than M’s. She only has to learn what you’re teaching her. You have to unlearn decades of food and body shame while teaching M to avoid those pitfalls. That’s a brave thing to do.

  5. Ines Anchondo

    I absolutely love this post, Katja. I know what you mean about having your daughter share a meal with Ellyn. At our annual meeting I bring my daughter Milagros and we share many meals and snacks with Ellyn and other ESIers. This is a special situation, I recognized, having so many competent eaters eating together! And, is it fun. Maybe you will bring your daughter to next summer’s meeting?

    • katja

      thanks Ines, I struggled with this a little. Sounds like fun! I’d love to meet Milagros! Looking forward to it.

  6. Becky Henry

    Thank you for this Katja! So wonderful to help parents to CHILL OUT! What you are teaching is so important and can bring so much peace to families.
    Becky Henry

  7. Michellers

    What do I think? I think I love you 🙂

    Yes, yes, yes, and oh yes to all of the above. Even without the pressure of being an eating competence specialist I have experienced all of the above. I have to get to work but I just had to stop quickly and thank you for your wonderful blog.