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Feeding children differently isn’t fair. They will notice.

Posted by on Dec 5, 2012 in Blog Posts | 17 comments

Some of the parents who have struggled the most that I have worked with have one child who is large and one who is small.  (“Overweight” and “underweight.”) Parents who feed children in the standard approach, that is, the control model, and try to control a child’s weight by how they feed, find themselves stuck. Paraphrasing one client, “I am constantly pushing food on my younger daughter and snatching it out of my older daughter’s hands. The skinny one gets ice-cream while the chubby one has to eat sugar-free popsicles. My husband gets mad if he gets home and finds out my older girl had some milk-shake. I can’t do this anymore, it all feels so wrong. None of it’s ‘working’ anyway in terms of their weight. We are constantly fighting and in tears around food.”

Kids know when something is not fair, when one child is treated differently. Kids know that when a parent works so hard, at the price of so much conflict and upset, that being fat must be pretty awful, and that the skinny sibling is, in some way, better. That feels awful to a child, and the parent in the scenario above felt awful about it all too. But, she was doing as she was told by the pediatrician and dietitian, and well, society at large…

Watch this video here…  Wait for it. It’s worth it…

This scenario of feeding children differently is what I thought about when I saw this video. Check it out and let me know what you think. Are you trying to feed kids differently? How does it feel... Were you fed differently from a sibling as a child? How did that feel?

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  1. Gabrielle

    Boy did this hit home for me! Although I grew up in a middle class household, my main memory is of constant hunger. Food was restricted in the extreme for me and allowed in huge amounts for my naturally thin brother. The ironic part is that I was a normal weight, just not “skinny”. Now, unsurprisingly, I struggle with terrible food insecurity and am a constant yo-yo dieter, as is that same “naturally thin” brother. I vowed that I would never do that to my child, and he is in his twenties and is able to et just a bite of a cupcake or just one cookie , so even though I continue to struggle, at least I broke the pattern!

    • katja

      “At least?” Wow, I’d say that is a major accomplishment! I’m so sorry that happened to you (and your brother, he must have noticed and internalized that message that people can’t trust their own bodies…) Have you read Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family? Also, my friend and colleague, Michelle at has amazing resources for helping adult “dieting casualties” (as Ellyn Satter calls them) learn to tune in to cues of hunger, appetite and fullness. Good luck on your journey! Thank you for writing in. The adult comments on my blog have so much informed the work I do with children. Keep us posted!

  2. Seanan


    My daughter is 5 years old, and we adopted her when she was one year old. She was already eating a variety of foods. She has in the past been willing to try all kinds of foods. She would even try the food at the Lebanese restaurant, although in the last year or so she has become a little more picky. My son, who is our biological child, at a variety of foods as a baby, but after he started eating more and more table food, he would only eat a select few foods. This has continued to the point that now we have huge concerns over his eating. He does not eat any fruits or vegetables. He will not even eat some candies. He has some sensory issues and has worked with a occupational therapist and has made great progress. However, they told us just to cut up veggies and leave them out for him to eat. They don’t understand what we are dealing with. I do think his limited eating has impacted our daughter as well. You will probably be hearing from me soon for an appointment.

    I thought the video was great. I can totally relate to at least wanting to feed my kids differently. My daughter has always been a little overweight, while my son is underweight. I do try to offer them the same things, but I know if my son would eat fruit, for instance, I would ONLY offer fruit at times for a snack. I don’t want to be unfair. I want us all to be healthy eaters. My husband and I are desperate, and we would do anything—all of us follow any eating plan to help our son. Oh, I drive myself crazy. I have a masters degree in marriage and family therapy, and I beat myself up over not being able to figure out how to get my son to eat. My husband thinks we have failed as parents. I am so thankful to have come across your website/blog. I think the services you offer are so needed. I have been searching on the internet for months for this kind of information.

    • katja

      Welcome Shannon, I hope that what you find here resonates. I know that for my own family, when I began reading about the Trust Model, it felt so right… I still needed the science and research, and seeing it work with my own eyes to convince me, but it felt… right…
      I would suggest considering buying my book. You can all eat the same way, but it is not a restrictive or unpleasant plan to follow. Both your children can be trusted to self-regulate (eat the right amount) and to learn to eat a variety of foods, though one may always be larger, or smaller, or more or less adventurous.
      Join the conversation at the Feeding Doctor (seems like more folks comment there than on Love Me, Feed Me page…) I think my book will help explain a lot about weight, selective eating, chapter 3 is all about sensory and feeding therapies and may give you some insights, and then 4,and 5 are about rehabbing from restriction or selective eating, and lots more. Please keep in touch!
      I know for my family and for many, many others, this is a transformative process. Good luck!

  3. CL

    Did I notice as a kid that I got sugar-free popsicles, diet crystal light lemonade and carrot sticks while my mom allowed chips, soda and hostess cupcakes, among other items, for my skinny brother – um, hell yes! Was is horrible and still messes me up many years later? Yes, indeed. Parents do the best they can with what they have and what society tries to force on us all, so I’ve forgiven my mom for it, and reading Michelle’s Fat Nutritionist blog has been a huge source of inspiration for peace-making with food. However, I still would not wish this on any child. There must be a balance of feeding all children in a family with different needs in a manner that doesn’t single out the larger one and make him or her feel awful.

  4. Kirsten

    This happened in my family fairy often, and it felt like a punishment, and at the very least unfair. Especially when everything else you ate that day was monitored and recorded with utmost care, you just wanted one food item to be like everyone else’s.

    I mean when all your cousins and your little sister are having ice cream with Hershey’s choc syrup over the top, and you get a bowl of mixed melon balls (and you don’t like melon at the best of times) it just implies how different you are, and depending on the age being different can be hard to distinguish from being bad. Or when you go to school with a salad and all the other kids have sandwiches and chips and you feel like a freak because you’re the subject of so much attention that usually comes in the form of ridicule and being ostracized from the normal crowd. If you’re like me and tried to disappear into the background to avoid bullying and getting made fun of for being fat, then all a salad does is give them more ammo.

    There is a lot of pressure from an early age to conform, fit in, be like everyone else, and it seemed to know no bounds back in the 70s and 80s. I think it must be much worse now. Kids are smart….they understand and pick up on things much more easily than they are given credit for.

    • katja

      This is why the increased attention in schools is so nefarious. Previously, perhaps, at least from the adults, a safer place for kids, now there are “coaches” trolling the cafeteria shaming and publicly commenting on food children are eating. Boo all around. I too think it’s way worse now. So, so sad.

  5. Millie

    My brother and I were both big kids and he went through puberty sooner than I did (being two years older) but the pressure on me as the girl and the unfairness of constant dieting as a child really made me want to eat whatever he was having regardless of my own internal hunger cues (which I had already been trained out of recognising due to aforementioned constant dieting).

    Yeah, and being told I couldn’t have something made me what twice as much of it.

    • katja

      I wish every parent who is restricting and doing this to their kids would read these comments. It makes such sense, but this is the Kool-aid everyone is drinking. all of the interference makes it really hard to listen to internal cues…

  6. Andrea

    I think one could push the analogy even further, say when mother is having a cupcake (or whatever) and child is eating (or made eat) something different.

  7. Twistie

    Yes, experiments were needed to prove the point and demonstrate that you can tell the difference, but this is really one of those ideas that ought to be well up in the ‘no excrement, Mr. Holmes’ file.

    I know that I could tell a cupcake from a carrot stick at a very early age… and I’m betting I wasn’t terribly precocious in that regard.

    • katja

      🙂 I just liked the reaction. Priceless. I think that’s part of why I put it up. If monkeys and all kinds of other animals get it, then kids certainly do, and all the explaining about “nutrition” and “good for you” and other euphemisms about “being healthy” doesn’t change the underlying injustice that kids will feel if one is offered a cupcake, and another is offered a carrot stick.

      • Twistie

        Oh I plan to share that video with everyone I know. I needed a good laugh more than you will ever know today, and that gave it to me.

        Thanks a million, Katja!

        • katja

          I know, hilarious! Michelle at the Fat Nutritionist had the original link, and I had to write about how it reminded me of my work, as everything does!

  8. maggiemunkee

    oh man, i do so love frans de waal.

    i was fed the same as my younger sisters, though often “strongly encouraged” to make better choices. this didn’t start until i was 10 or 11, and went from being chubby to fat. my father especially made it known when my food choices were “incorrect.”

    i even had a boyfriend who fed me differently. at the time, i was probably a size 24, and he was… his pants size was the same measurement as my thigh. when we spent time together, he would be snacking on something. i noticed when i asked for some, he quickly put it away. i began testing, waiting longer and longer (up to an hour sometimes) before grabbing a cheesy poof or whatever. it never failed, as soon as i reached for the snack, he put it away. that relationship didn’t last very long. (especially after he said he couldn’t love me because i was fat, but the sex was good and we should keep doing that. then he was dumped immediately.)

    • katja

      Boo for boyfriend, yay for dumping. kids know when this is happening. i remember as a kid hearing, “Do you really need that pork chop?” and getting mad and thinking, “Well, now I want three!” It’s all part of that head game I write about in the book. it interferes with really being able to listen to your body when you start resenting or questioning all the stuff going on around the food… Thanks for sharing your experience!