Establishing a Child Care Feeding Policy
By Ellyn Satter

While doing the taping for my series on feeding, I observed a number of children eating, and I saw a lot of strange behaviors. But the preschoolers who attended Salimeh’s child care home had the strangest behavior of all. There, the children hovered over one of the little girls. “You can do it,” they encouraged kindly.

“Just one more bite.”

“Wash it down with you milk,” suggested another.

“You have to eat,” anxiously commented still another.

The little girl looked miserable. She didn’t seem at all interested in her food. All the children waited while she forced down one bite after another. Finally, her plate was empty and they all left, congratulating her.

“Salimeh, what is going on?” I asked. “I don’t know what to do,” she said. “Every night, when Emma goes home, her father asks her if she ate her lunch. If she says no, he spanks her. And every day he asks me if she ate her lunch. Sometimes she eats quite a lot of it and sometimes she doesn’t. She rarely cleans her plate. If I tell him the truth, he’ll spank her. I don’t want to lie to him, but I don’t want him punishing Emma either.”

The dilemma Salimeh is a familiar one. She was asked by a parent to do something with a child’s feeding that she knew was wrong and not in the child’s best interest. Parents, like child care professionals, love their children and want the best for them. Sometimes parents’ concerns, however, lead them to use feeding approaches that are not developmentally or emotionally sound. The caregiver then must diplomatically approach parents about these concerns.

Salimeh went along with the parent’s wishes. Some providers try to change parent’s ideas, an approach that often doesn’t work. Some providers ignore parents’ wishes and do what they think is right. This approach certainly doesn’t work because it destroys trust. The solution lies in prevention. Child care professionals should head off feeding disputes with parents by establishing and agreeing on a feeding policy. A feeding policy is a written statement that clearly states to parents what you will and will not do in feeding the children in your program. Your child feeding policy tells parents where you stand and is part of the package you offer. As with other child care issues, it is up to parents to accept or refuse the package.

While reviewing the feeding policy, you can help parents better understand their child and themselves. Today’s parents feel considerable conflict about their own eating and body weight. The current emphasis on weight control and dietary changes to prevent disease puts pressure on parents to feed themselves and their children well. Negative attitudes, combined with time constraints, have distorted parents’ eating attitudes and behaviors. Today’s parents may:

  • Diet instead of trusting their hunger and appetite to regulate the amounts they eat.

  • Depend on a limited array of restaurant and/or convenience foods to feed their family instead of cooking meals.

  • Worry about the quality and safety of today’s food supply and want to dictate your menus or send special food with their child.

  • Believe unhelpful feeding advice from family and friends. For example, parents might expect you to insist that children eat their vegetables to earn dessert. In reality, this practice teaches children that dessert is better than what is on their plate.  

Children Need Adults to Help Them Become Competent Eaters
Eating skills are built gradually. Children learn to like new foods one by one. Spill by spill, they learn to be more skillful in their eating. A preschooler who has learned positive eating at home and in child care displays theses healthful eating attitudes and behaviors.

  • Enjoys many different foods
  • Relies on the internal cues of hunger and fullness to know how much to eat
  • Tries new foods and learns to like them
  • Turns politely away from foods he doesn’t want to eat
  • Eats in other places besides home
  • “Makes do” with less than favorite foods

The Division of Responsibility in Feeding
To help children develop eating competence, many parents and child care providers follow a division of responsibility in feeding children. Adults are responsible for what children are offered to eat, and when and where it is offered. Children are responsible for how much and even whether they eat.

Adults are in charge of the menu. It is their job to provide safe, nutritious meals and snacks at planned times in a pleasant environment. It is up to children to decide how much or how little they eat of the food offered.

Children need to feel in control of their eating. Children eat best when they can pick and choose from the available foods. They need the freedom to turn down foods they don’t want, and the support to choose not to eat something they have taken. When children know they have an “out” with food, they can experiment more with new foods than if they feel they “must” eat.

Children are erratic about their eating. Children eat what tastes good to them today. Their favorite food today may not taste good to them tomorrow. It follows that on some days they have big appetites and on other days they do not. But they will eat, if you trust and respect their need to eat in their own way.

Children need scheduled eating times. Young children have small stomachs and high energy requirements. Plan meals and snacks so that they eat every two to three hours. Don’t hand out food or beverages (other than water) between scheduled feeding times. You want children to have an appetite when mealtime or snacktime comes around.

Children need moral support to do a good job with eating. Sit down and eat with the children in your care at mealtimes. Be friendly and companionable, but don’t try to take over their job of eating. Keep eating times free of distractions like television. Be tolerant of children’s messiness; they get neater as they master eating.

Children need time and repeated exposure to learn to like new foods. Children learn to like new foods by having them served repeatedly, by seeing their friends eat them, and by tasting them many times. Providing substitutions teaches children that you don’t expect them to learn to like the food you offer.

Children need fat in their diets. The low-fat diets many of today’s parents think they should follow are not suitable for young children. Food for children, at home and at school, should have enough fat in it to be good-tasting and be concentrated in calories. It’s nearly impossible for children to eat enough low-fat food to get the calories they need for growth and energy.

Children need limits on behavior. Children don’t benefit from being allowed to say “Yuck!” at mealtime. They should learn to be respectful of other people’s feelings—whether those are your feelings about the food you prepare or their friends’ feelings about what they like to eat. Children benefit from learning to turn down food with a simple, “No, thank you.” They need the social skills of being matter-of-fact about choosing not to eat something and being subtle about getting food back out of their mouths when they don’t feel like swallowing.

Children waste food. When you feed children, food waste is inevitable. A child may take a food and eat one bite or not eat it at all. He or she isn’t being naughty. Children aren’t very good at estimating how much they’ll eat, so they may serve themselves too much. Remind them to take smaller portions and reassure them they may have more. It’s hard to waste food you’ve paid for, but in the long run, children waste less food and to take responsibility for their own eating.

Allow children to grow in the way that nature intended. Children don’t grow according to outside expectations. Each child has his or her own genetic blueprint for growth. There are many different, normal body shapes and sizes. Children know how much they need to eat to develop the body that’s right for them.

Teaching Feeding, Teaching Parenting
When you teach parents about feeding, you have a wonderful opportunity to influence the whole direction of a child’s upbringing and the relationship between parent and child. If you can help parents tune in to their children, you can help them be more caring and nurturing. Thus, parents learn more about their child in all areas of life.

Ellyn Satter is a registered dietitian, clinical social worker, psychotherapist, child nutrition consultant, and author of How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much and Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. To inquire about or order materials, call Ellyn Satter Associates at 800-808-7976 or check out her website

Successfully Implementing a Feeding Policy

  • Give a copy of your feeding policy to parents during recruitment, so that your position is clear from the beginning.

  • Post your feeding policy where parents can easily see it.

  • Be firm and assertive with parents. Don’t lower your expectations to try to get them to go along with you.

  • Invite parents to lunch or snacktime to give them an opportunity to show their children that they appreciate your food.

  • Use your knowledge and experience to interpret a child’s eating habits to his or her parents, then help parents act on their child’s behalf. For example, you might say, “Your daughter is ready for solids because she is sitting up well and opens her mouth when she sees food coming. Do you want to start her on cereal or do you want me to do it?” Or you could give parents a handout explaining how to start their baby eating solid foods.


Ellyn Satter Resources for Child Care Providers

To inquire about or order materials, call Ellyn Satter Associates at 800-808-7976 or check out her website at

Ellyn Satter’s Feeding with Love and Good Sense: Video and Teacher’s Guide, 1997. A series of four, 15-minute live-action videotapes of children with their parents and child care providers.

Ellyn Satter’s Nutrition and Feeding for Infants and Children: Handout Masters, 1997. These handouts answer questions parents most often ask about feeding.

How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much, 1987. This book offers specific advice on feeding children, infancy through adolescence.

Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense. A warm, supportive and entertaining book that covers nutrition and growth from pregnancy through preschool.