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Helicopter Feeding

Posted by on Apr 16, 2009 in Blog Posts | 3 comments

I’ve taken to calling it “Helicopter feeding.” We’ve all seen it, heck I did it before I learned about the Division of Responsibility in Feeding: Parents are responsible for WHAT, WHEN, WHERE kids eat. Kids are responsible for HOW MUCH and IF. (

Picture two scenarios.
Dad #1 is having dinner with his two year-old. The focus is on the food. How much, what order, how many bites little Timmy is eating. Dad often leans over Timmy, and places foods like vegetables before him, moves the beverage away, threatens Timmy that he has to have “two more big bites” of chicken before he gets his dessert. Dad’s arms fly around the table, pushing, feeding, taking away. He is overly-involved and is trying to do Timmy’s job—that is deciding how much and if to eat. No one is having much fun. Timmy is resisting, and in fact eats very little. After one bite of chicken and thirty minutes of bartering, Dad gives in and and gives Timmy a small bowl of ice-cream. This dad is a helicopter feeder.
Scenario #2. Dad and Susie—same age as Timmy. Dad has set the table with a bowl with some small pieces of chicken, some ketchup for dipping, corn, a new vegetable for Susie which is beets (could be anything) and rice. Next to her plate Susie has an appropriate portion of ice-cream. Susie has helped lay the table by putting napkins on each plate. They sit, and Dad begins eating. Susie has a plate with compartments and begins dipping chicken in ketchup. Then she takes a few bites of ice-cream. She loves corn so she digs in, experimenting with adding ketchup. She goes back to the ice-cream. Susie eyes the beets, watches Daddy eats a piece. He explains that it is a little sweet, and not crunchy. He shows her his pink tongue. Susie licks a piece and then puts it down. She finishes her ice-cream, and has some more corn and chicken. They talk a lot about the amazing color of the beets, but she doesn’t eat any more tonight, and Dad doesn’t push it. They both enjoy the meal, and Susie eats some chicken, corn and ice-cream, skipping the rice and beets this time. Dad has not reached over or threatened, bribed or begged Susie to do anything. He has done his job, which is putting a variety of foods on the table and allowing Susie to do the rest.
Which kid would you rather be? Which parent? Which style reflects how you were fed as a child? Which child seems to have a more varied intake? As the kids grow up, which one will be more likely to want to participate in family meals?
Kids pushed to eat fruits and veggies tend to eat less, kids fed in a controlling style eat less well, tend to then eat more when away from the parents, and eat more in times of stress. Some kids would rather fight than eat. Taking the struggle out of mealtime helps even picky eaters accept a greater variety.
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  1. Sonya

    My kids are teens now and eat everything, even veggies. We just kept putting veg on the plate. It had to be well seasoned and taste good to us first. Not boiled to death with no flavor. Keep putting veg in front of the kid, and eventually it will click. We probably helicoptered, requiring X number of bites to get to the ice cream or second helpings of something else. It must have worked out because my kids will now fix their own veg when they do their own meals. Persistence & consistency, which is necessary in all parenting matters. One note, we had a child who was always on the verge of underweight due to some medication that killed his appetite. We considered the veg extra important in that case, and celebrated the eating of the veg every time. It is not easy for some of us to relax and not fixate on every bite not taken, but it sure does make for more harmony if you can step back and look at what was eaten over the day or a couple days, and aim for balance there. Everybody, even kids, have hungry days and not so hungry days. I wouldn’t like some obnoxious person hovering over me, all worked up over what I am or am not putting in my mouth. That makes everybody stressed, and who can digest like that? That’s mu opinion.

    • katja

      Thank you so much for writing. Glad you have teens who seem to be doing really well, in spite of some early feeding challenges, like the medication. You bring up great points. I know kids who turn out competent with eating, even with some of the “two-bite” rules, so I tell families, if it’s working for you, go for it! I think temperament, family meals, tasty foods are super important. Growing up, I was also expected to eat the veg (almost always I enjoyed them, save boiled spinach…) and there was some restriction on portions once puberty hit, but I think I did pretty well bc the food was tasty, we enjoyed family meals, and we all were pretty easy-going. I love your point about the harmony when the conflict isn’t there. It is very hard not to fixate, and even harder now in our culture that is totally fixated…

  2. MCKerr

    I love the example, but I’m confused about how this would work in our home. My son, in Susie’s chair, would eat the chicken, ketchup and ice cream (of course!), maybe or maybe not touch the corn, depending on the day, complain about the very existence of the beets and never touch them. And he would ask for more chicken and ketchup (as well as more ice cream, if he thought he had even a ghost of a chance of getting it). According to this model, do I give him more chicken? Even if he asks for a third helping? That’s one of the challenges we’re facing with my not-quite-5-yr-old son, who can eat an entire box of mac n cheese or half a pizza, if left to his own choices about quantity, but leaves the veggies untouched. Am I pressuring him if tell him, “you’ve had enough hot dogs, but if you’re still hungry you can have a banana or a fruit cup or an apple or some mandarin oranges…”? I’m open to new ideas, but this concerns me because I’m often disturbed by my son’s seemingly insatiable hunger for anything in the food pyrmid EXCEPT vegetables.