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Laying down the “rules” for family and guests?

Posted by on Jun 17, 2011 in Blog Posts | 31 comments

Some of the comments after my last post got me thinking. How do you set down the feeding “rules” in your home when you have guests who insist on pressuring their children and perhaps even your own? It ocurred to me that maybe having this list posted would be an easy way to deal with this issue… Could you see posting this on the fridge for your own family, but also for guests in your home? You can simply laugh and point to the “rules” when your cousin Betty tries to make your son eat all his veggies before he can “earn” dessert??

I was thinking how incredible it might be for a child who experiences significant anguish and pressure around food to see what eating without pressure can feel like… What a gift it could be to say to a child, “You don’t have to eat anything you don’t want,” or, “Of course you can have more chicken, there is plenty…” Did you as a child ever experience that sense of, “Wow, things can be different?” (For better or for worse…)

Here is Ellyn Satter’s, From the Cook, which you can download as a PDF. (chose the second or third PDF, one is a country style, the other with hearts…)

From the Cook
♥ Food will be available at mealtime and snack-time.
Other than that, the kitchen is closed.
♥ You do not have to eat anything you do not want to.
♥ You do have to say “yes, please,” and “no, thank you.”
♥ You will not say “yuck.”
♥ There will always be bread, and you may eat as
much of it as you want.
♥ When I make something new, I will also make
something you generally enjoy.
♥ Sometimes I will make one person’s favorite.
Another time, someone else will get lucky.
♥ Any disputes will be settled by the cook.
Copyright © 2011 by Ellyn Satter. For more information see or read
Ellyn Satter’s Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. Rights to reproduce: As long as you leave it
unchanged, you don’t charge for it, and you include the entire copyright statement, you may
reproduce this piece.

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  1. Idahopixie

    Hehe… I’m bad about bread. It’s not that I’m against it, I’m against /store bought/ bread. Which means I have to make it. And I’m lazy. So we have bread /sometimes/. When I feel like it.

    • katja

      you can find something else, or don’t sweat it. We don’t have bread with every meal, in fact, we rarely do… It is a great tool though to help picky eaters, and those learning to bea eating competent to have something at the table that they can get satisfied with…

  2. jessidehl

    We don’t have bread for every meal either. My kids only eat it when we’re having PB & honey sandwiches. I keep serving it, even though they will pick the turkey and tomatoes out of the sandwiches (thank goodness the dog eats the leftovers). I just make sure that I have something they each like to eat and I serve protein, grain/starch, veggies and a fruit for each meal. Plus, I always try to have bananas somewhere near so I guess that’s the “bread” for our family.
    My kids aren’t picky for the most part so they rarely elect to eat the banana instead of the meal. Bananas are also the only thing they get to have if they are hungry after supper/before bed. I know it isn’t recommended but between tee ball games and busy days, sometimes the kids are genuinely hungry after supper. I think knowing they can only have bananas keeps it from turning into a game to see what mom will give them. I want to honor the fact that they are tuned into their hunger signals. I wonder what Ellyn would say about this…:)

    • katja

      I think it sounds like you have it figured out for your family! We too on a rare occasion will have a banana or little something before bed, but not too often. i think paying attention to your instincts and emotional response is key. The structure helps you hone those instincts and learn to trust your child. If you feel upset or like you are getting played over a food request, or you’re feeling sucked into a power struggle, then maybe more is going on. Good for you for putting in all the work for feeding them reliably and in a rewarding way and for letting them chose what from what you provide 🙂

      • jessidehl

        They rarely ask for food. When they do ask, I know it’s because they really are hungry–and it’s funny but my daughter asked for a banana last night, ate half and then woke up with growing pains in her legs. Hmmmm.

  3. Piper

    I’m not a kid, I’m an adult but I have a problem. I never get hungry. I’m 5’7, 308 pounds. I have no health challenges but I eat three meals a day because it’s normal but what is your advice for someone who never feels hungry? Please advice, thank you.

    • katja

      I would consider reading Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family. “Normal” is different for everyone. Not knowing the details, you may need a little more help tuning in to your internal cues. Michelle at the is excellent and works with clients. Also, consider reading “Intuitive Eating.” It would be very rare to not feel hunger. I don’t know what your history is with feeding or food or dieting, and that can certainly make those cues harder to pay attention to. That might be a great place to start. Learning mindfulness, skills to tune in, work with a different schedule… Lots of options.

  4. Ines

    Wonderful and thought provoking post, Katja. And, as alternatives for bread since Kate and Heather are asking in my house is tortillas or pita bread depending on the meal.

  5. Emily

    I am curious about rule #1. I am learning (as an adult) to listen to my body’s signals of hunger and fullness and satiety. This is radical for me b/c my whole life I ate b/c of the clock or for other “outside,” artificial reasons that did not correspond with my hunger. It seems like the other rules have to do with choices and trusting the body, but rule #1 seems rigid. I am worried it would make kids *have* eating issues if they are told they can only eat at certain times (similar to being told they have to eat a certain food or amount or they can’t eat a certain food or amount). Thanks for your insight.

    • katja

      I like this post from the It gets to it a little bit. It is different for different people. Read back a few posts and you can see how even the “rules” of structure are bendable at times.
      Some folks who go the purely intuitive eating route do well. Others actually spend more time obsessing about what and when they will eat, and having regular, reliable opportunities to eat, or not helps them learn self-regulation and not worry about food from one ‘eating appointment’ to the next. (Again a term from Michelle, I couldn’t find her post on the topic.) You might want to spend a little time poking around her blog. She has some great stuff about learning to eat.
      I find that kids generally do best when they have reliable structure. Are offered food every 2-3 hours for the little ones and every 3-4 hours for bigger kids. Some kids will eat more or less than they need if they are bored, or distractable, really tuned-in to food etc. Some kids may get so into playing outside that they forget to eat and are ravenous, cranky etc. It also seems to me to work in tune with physiology, the ebb and flow of hormones, blood sugar levels etc. But again, if what you are doing works for you, then go for it! I’ve read an Intuitive eating book for kids, and am not convinced that the child having their own snack drawer, full of whatever they want to eat, whenever they want is the way to go. Kids naturally are influenced by commercials, Tony the Tiger, would seek out the high fat/sugar/salt foods often. I will have to address this again sometime, but I hope that is a start. I see how competent my daughter is, how comfortable she is with food, how on Halloween when I say, “go for it!” she says she is done after 2 or 3 pieces. I can’t tell you what is “right” or “wrong” I just know from my reading, my personal and clinical experience that this works best for my daughter and I and the clients I work with.

      • Jennifer

        When my son began to get quite picky we were doing a lot of grazing and he was constantly “hungry” and demanding food. He never really ate a large amount at one time and so never seemed far from hunger. This got to be fairly annoying (I think this is the point we found Ellyn Satter)and seemed to quickly progress into the situation where he thought he should be fed the minute he felt like it. I think it also made it easier for him to reject food since he knew that he was getting fed frequently.

    • E

      Emily, I agree–hearing that the kitchen is closed is SUPER SCARY for me, probably because my parents did not feed me competently and they used that term, so for me it is permanently linked with lots of other restrictive things. I don’t limit my own eating to meal/snacktimes now, and I think it has worked well for me. Interestingly, knowing that I can always eat something If I want to has lead to much less after-dinner eating. Occasionally I will eat a lot after dinner, but it’s often when I’ve had a really busy day and probably didn’t get enough to eat earlier. I’ve also noticed that when I’ve had a really busy week where I didn’t eat much each day, on the Saturday I will be hungry and eating all day long. After that, on Sunday my hunger will be more normal. This might not be for everyone, but it makes sense to me.

      • katja

        E, I am sorry you had such a tough time as a kid. Definitely pay attention to your feelings around these issues. I think the “rules” are flexible, as I said in my recent post that I linked to before. I eat if I am hungry, I always have nuts or a granola bar on hand because being hungry and not having food around makes me anxious too. I think for me, I interpret this in terms of feeding kids, that you will not be a short-order cook, cooking plain noodles 20 minutes after you have prepared dinner. It helps reinforce structure in terms of feeding little ones every 2-3 hours, bigger kids every 3-4, but again, if you have something that works for you, don’t mess with it. I think raising kids this way to be competent with eating is helpful, but if there is a traumatic history around food, any “rules” can be triggering and counter-productive. Do any of the other rules work for you? Pick and chose 🙂 I do know that my little one when she is bored will automatically say, “I’m hungry” and I think that having structure and just saying, “we’ll eat again soon, let’s find something to do” is helpful. (She will at times eat a nice big meal, and say “I’m hungry.” We get involved with an activity and she forgets about it until about the next meal/snack time…

  6. Kate

    So what’s the bread thing about? Bread isn’t exactly a staple in our house, so I’m curious what the analog would be for us.

    • Heather

      Yes, I’ve wondered that too, because bread and butter isn’t something I would have put on the table at all meals for just my husband and I, so to add it because of our son seems weird.

    • katja

      Bread or a cultural equivalent, chipatis, tortillas… If you don’t eat bread and your child eats well, I wouldn’t necessarily add it. It can be a helpful tool while you are transitioning to the trust model or if you have a more limited eater. the point of having bread on the table is that the child can come to the table knowing they will have something they can eat, that they won’t go hungry. It takes off the pressure. Will a picky child only eat bread for awhile? Probably, but the intrinsic drive for variety, and most importantly a lack of pressure will create the environment where she is more likely to try a new food. When we transitioned to trust model when M was 16 months, we were not bread eaters, but we had bread on the table. During the first few weeks she often chose to eat some bread, but gradually ate more from what we served, and then hardly ever. I don’t enjoy bread with meals usually (unless it’s warm, home-made bread or at a restaurant) so I just put the bread bag next to the table. If she didn’t like what we were serving, there was bread and butter within reach. I would say, “If you don’t want the casserole, you can have bread and butter, or peas… ” (I also tried to consider her tastes and make a side she was likely to eat if the main dish was new or more challenging…)
      Does that clarify? Some of the things we recommend, like serving dessert with a meal for example, or always having bread are tools to help solidify skills with food-regulation and food acceptance. More often than not now if we have dessert, we eat it at the end of the meal, and she knows to save some room if we’re having dessert (nothing makes her madder than not knowing there is dessert and then eating until she is satisfied and then learning there is dessert! She cries because she isn’t hungry, but she won’t overeat.) Just a few thoughts! Let me know if you still have questions…

      • Kate

        Yes, it does clarify. Sounds like it would be a good strategy if we hit a picky period (and I hear that’s a normal phase we might come up against in the next couple of years). At the moment we don’t have difficulty with people finding enough from what is offered. 🙂

        Since you brought up the dessert thing…I do make our occational dessert available during the meal, but now that we’re heading into summer, how do you handle desserts/treats like ice cream? There is a definite element of needing to eat it within a certain time frame before the heat destroys it, you know?

        • katja

          we eat in the kitchen, so I put the popsicle, or ice-cream in a little bowl in the freezer. She can chose when she wants to eat it. Sometimes the popsicle melted while she ate, others she would ask to put it in the freezer for later, or even the next day for snack… I think if it’s a child-sized portion, it’s another thing they get to figure out 🙂

      • Emily

        That is very interesting to me, that she is upset enough about missing dessert to cry, but she won’t overeat. To what do you attribute this? To what you have taught her about being full and eating, or her own priorities about comfort, or something else? I don’t “overeat” often, but I will pretty much always “make room” for something I love (such as a great dessert). I would like to be in that place where I wouldn’t eat when full, even if it is a food I love. I envy your child!!

        • katja

          I think it’s many things. She has had years of eating tuned in to hunger and fullness, she also knows she gets treats fairly regularly so it’s not the only chance, and we have also made all foods a treat. She moans and relishes Kohlrabi in butter and broth, roasted peppers, a good stir-fry. We have, in essence taken the dessert of the ultimate pedestal. Yes, dessert is special (why she is upset if she gets full) but there are lots of other special things, so it is proportional… Does that make sense?

        • Rosa

          I assumed that was normal for kids – my son does it too – and adults have learned to push themselves past satiety for whatever reason.

          • katja

            rosa, it could be normal for everyone… But, I think I know where you are coming from. Studies that show that 2 year old’s stop when they are full, but by 5, they ear what they are served. While we are all born with the ability to self-regulate, “adults” learn to push past satiety as young children because they are pressured with feeding. 85-90% of American parents push kids to eat more, to finish their plates, or “two more bites” so over time, children are fed, will eat to please parents and learn to overeat. They lose touch with those internal signals, but those skills are still there, they are just buried. It is FAR easier to feed a child with the DOR and support their inborn skills, rather than bury them from years of pressure, overfeeding (or restriction and the resultant loss of internal regulation) and then try to heal the relationship with food. It takes time, but those internal signals are still there and people can learn to eat based on internal cues again… Did that make sense? Adults don’t learn to overeat, they are fed in a way that doesn’t support hanging on to skills they already had.

  7. Rosa

    We have a couple different rules than those – there is always dried fruit & dried veggies at kid eyeball level, instead of always bread, and you *do* have to eat the food you served yourself before you can have seconds. We also have a “you have to eat more than one kind of food” rule- he can totally have cereal for breakfast and toast for lunch but then he has to eat something else than pure grains for dinner.

    I never know what to say to other people about their kids, though – it’s different when it’s just me and the kids, I try to respect other people’s food rules (vegetarians, low-sugar people, all-organic people) but I don’t use the
    “bad food” talk they use, or limit amounts, and when they push it on my kid I just tell them we don’t do that here.

    We do avoid some foods when we have some visitors – the big one is I have a friend who doesn’t let her kid have any of a long list of “bad foods” (she says it’s that they don’t eat sugar but that’s not true, they just only eat sugary foods that are “healthy” like sweetened yogurt). So we don’t have ice cream or cookies when she’s here, just like we don’t make fried chicken when the vegetarians are coming over – kiddo’s got enough friends and family with ethical or medical diet issues, he understands “we’re not having that because Miss X isn’t allowed.” and I haven’t had to have the whole “because he mom thinks she’s fat” discussion with him. Yet.

    • katja

      Hi Rosa,
      If your rules work for you, then go for it. When you say “always” do you mean the food is around and they can grab it when they want? From a feeding dynamics perspective, it is not recommended to allow kids to graze when they want, the structure piece is important. Some kids allowed to graze will eat less, others more than they need.
      Also, your rule that they eat at least one thing is not consistent with feeding dynamics, but if you are not getting any resistance, then it sounds like it works for you. I too prefer that M eats a variety, and I have had some anxiety when she only eats a little cereal for breakfast, or only cantaloupe, but I trust that she will naturally seek out variety (this is backed up by research) and I don’t push it. Generally she eats a great variety, so I don’t find the need to have extra rules, and I imagine it would create more conflict, power struggles and a child who eats less well in our home with her temperament.

      When others come over, it is perfectly acceptable to cook for a vegetarian or someone with food allergies, in fact it is courteous. It still follows the DOR as you decide what to serve, you offer a variety and folks can pick and chose from what is available. I would wait for him to ask before trying to explain, and then do so very carefully if you have to. (We don’t want kids to tease other kids, which they can, or even for a child to say, “your mom thinks your fat.” which may be factual but hurtful…) I tend to just say things like, “It’s Susies’ mom’s job to decide what she will give Susie to eat…” Something like that, or “that’s how they do things.” I had to explain that in our house we don’t have chocolate milk first thing in the morning and last thing at night (with 5 teaspoons of syrup,) that we only did that at Susie’s cabin because that’s how Susie and Susie’s mom do things. “In our house we have dinner and then we go to bed a little while later…” Something like that. She does still get chocolate milk occasionally with snacks or a late breakfast, but we parents decide the what, when and where. M accepted the explanation and moved on!
      thanks for sharing!

      • Rosa

        Well, the dried fruit is always there but we’re really only home at mealtimes, so he’s either eating it at mealtimes or afterward in the gap between dinner & bedtimes.

        The “have to eat more than one thing” rule is over a day – he can totally have toast or canteloupe or eggs or whatever for breakfast, but he can’t have canteloupe for breakfast, lunch and dinner unless he also eats some other thing too.

        • katja

          I’m glad that the have to eat more than one thing is over the day. If you offer different foods, and he chooses from what you offer, then this will happen without any stated rule. He just doesn’t get offered canteloupe with every meal or snack… I imagine if I offered ice-cream with every meal and snack, she would eat it for every meal and snack for a long time! I also phrase it like, “we are lucky, we get to eat so many different yummy foods!”Sounds nicer than “You have to eat…” even though the end result is the same. Thanks for replying!

  8. Kristy

    How amazing those rules are! I’m printing them out and putting them on my fridge right now even though it’s just my husband and me in the household. These are awesome reminders that we too deserve to eat without undue pressure from each other or ourselves. In our house, though, bread would be replaced by apples.

    • katja

      Thank you. It’s a great reminder that ONE person is a family. Ellyn reviews this in Secrets to Feeding a Healthy Family where she concentrates om feeding yourself for the first several chapters. We need to care for ourselves. We are our family. I’ll address bread in the next reply…

  9. Emerald

    The one about bread is interesting to me. My mother frowned on me eating ‘too much’ bread (to the extent of taking a slice off my plate if she thought I’d had enough). Never knew anyone else’s parents be like that about it, but I’m guessing that in today’s carb-phobic culture it might be making a comeback.

    One big shock for me, as a kid, was realizing that there were people who could drink a glass of cold milk in the middle of the day if they wanted one – in our house you couldn’t do that, because ‘milk is a food, not a drink’. (This was after I’d passed the age where we got mid-morning milk at school. Why that was OK was never explained.)

    • katja

      How did that make you feel when she took the bread off your plate? What was the message you got? (I know when my mom told me I didn’t “need” another pork chop, I felt bad and wanted two more just to show her!)
      When you say, “Why that was OK” what are you referring to?
      I can assure you, parents are hyper controlling about bread, and everything else about food. Are you on facebook? Check out Ellyn Satter Associates and watch the video that’s a few posts back. I see kids who literally look to their parents for approval for every piece of food they eat, or every smear of butter…

      • Emerald

        Sorry – I meant, why it was OK to drink milk at school, but not at home.

        And, the bread thing? Didn’t make me want to eat more, but did make me pretty angry (still does thinking about it, a bit). Thanks for the heads-up on the video – will check it out.


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