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Mental Note

Episode 36: Too Good to Be True? Struggle Free Family Meals

By Keira Oseroff

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We’ve all been there: Adult brings child a meal. Child refuses to eat it. Everyone’s anxiety spikes and an epic standoff ensues. Sound familiar? Most of us probably assume fighting over what we eat is normal. 

Not according to Keira Oseroff of The Ellyn Satter Institute. She claims that kids of all ages should be able to feed themselves…and thrive! Doubtful? We were too. So, we sat down with Keira to hear all about how to avoid the dinner table battle of wills and transform the whole family’s relationship with food in the process. 

Sidenote - this is not an episode about eating disorders. Rather, it’s about everyone’s relationship with food and how to build a joyful connection to our plates. We’ll unpack what intuitive eating is, why Keira emphasizes the evidence-based Satter Feeding dynamics model and Eating Competence Model, and practical steps to make mealtime more enjoyable.

Transcript

Ellie Pike:

The contortions we put ourselves through over food can feel inescapable. From eating too much or too little to eating, "Good or bad foods." If we feel so overwhelmed by such a basic daily ritual, how do we even begin to raise kids that are competent eaters?

Keira Oseroff:

It's trusting that our kids know what to do. I think sometimes we don't trust ourselves. It's hard to trust them.

Ellie Pike:

Hard indeed. Right? But what if we engaged our kids with a seemingly radical amount of trust? What might happen then? Well, today's guest makes some claims about kids and food, that sounds too good to be true.

Keira Oseroff:

One of the things I did, I know this is going to sound crazy, is I put a plate of brownies on the table and there was one for everybody. If she wanted to eat a brownie first, that was fine.

Ellie Pike:

Let's snap on some bibs, fill a chippy cup and dig in.

Ellie Pike:

You're Listening to Mental Note podcast. I'm Ellie Pike.

Ellie Pike:

Meet Keira Oseroff, a faculty member at the Ellyn Satter Institute and licensed clinical social worker.

Keira Oseroff:

ESI is a mission-based organization and our mission is to help people eat and feed with joy. It really is that simple. Our relationships with food have become anything but joyful, and we really just want to reach families and parents and adults, policymakers, really to spread the message that it is possible to enjoy eating and enjoy food and feel good about it.

Ellie Pike:

Oh, I like that. It's such a simple thing when you say it like that. How did you get interested in that? What's your background and your story?

Keira Oseroff:

I am a licensed clinical social worker and I began working in the field of eating disorders when I was in graduate school and interning at a hospital and eating disorder treatment center. I really fell in love with the work and knew that I would be working with folks that struggled with eating and body image in my career. It was a topic that hit pretty close to home, as there were people in my family that had eating disorder and I think I had struggles with my own body image. It just was something I really could relate to and I wanted to work with people so that they can get back to health. Physical health, emotional health, and live a normal life.

Ellie Pike:

How did having a kid influence your path?

Keira Oseroff:

Greatly. I was a case manager on the unit and when I was pregnant with my first child. I had thought that all of these issues had been put away and I had really made peace with them. When I found out I was pregnant, I was pretty excited. Then, when I found out actually I was having a girl, I was two things. I was super excited, but I was also really petrified and realized that the issues hadn't been put away. I was afraid for her. I was afraid, "What if she had an eating disorder? What if she had food issues like I did when I was a kid and he compulsively?"

Keira Oseroff:

It was really, I guess, Goldilocks syndrome, right? I was afraid she would need enough and I was afraid she would eat too much.

Keira Oseroff:

I realized how perfect we want our kids to be. We want them to not eat too much and we want them to not eat too little. That's a tall order. I was pretty anxious and I realized that I was going to have to look at some of that so that I could relax, because I knew that being anxious was only going to probably get in the way.

Keira Oseroff:

When I was on maternity leave, a colleague brought a baby gift to my house and one part of the baby gift was one of Ellyn's books, her first book, Child of Mine. I started to read it and it was a roadmap. I just took a huge sigh of relief and thought, "Okay, I have a path, I have a plan. I know how to feed her."

Keira Oseroff:

I began feeding her according to the feeding dynamics model from the day she was born and it really did change the trajectory of my life, the way I parent around food, the way that I work with folks in my office. It just really changed everything for me.

Ellie Pike:

Personally, as a mother raising a young child, I can appreciate the anxiety that comes with trying to foster healthy eating habits at an early age. In my work, I have seen how vital these early habits are. They have the ability to either set up a person for longterm success and enjoyment or mutate mealtime into disordered eating and destructive anxiety.

Ellie Pike:

Similarly, Keira's own parenting journey led her on a path that went from reading Ellyn Satter's books to actually working at her Institute.

Keira Oseroff:

I devoured that book and I really use it like a Bible. I read all of the books at that time. I wanted to study with her. Couple years when the kids were old enough, I left. I went to Madison for a couple of days, two years in a row and I took the Visions workshops, which still go on. Now they're being offered virtually, which is really exciting, but I went for five days to Madison and studied with her.

Keira Oseroff:

It was like being with a rock star for me. She had talked about that she was going to start developing ESI, a foundation and an Institute to carry on the work because she knew she wouldn't be here forever, and not working forever. I went up to her and I said, I want to be part of this. I want to learn everything I can. I want to be part of the faculty.

Keira Oseroff:

She very politely just counseled me on out of there. I was young and she just reassured me that I had a lot of growing to do and that I needed to really get strong roots and reassured me that she had not started writing really until her forties.

Keira Oseroff:

I thought to myself, I think Ellyn just told me that I am not ready or not good enough or something, I don't know. I kept the faith and I kept in touch with her throughout the years.

Keira Oseroff:

Fast forward probably 10 years had passed and one day my phone rang and it was Ellyn. She said, "I would like to talk with you about you possibly becoming part of our faculty." It was about three weeks after my 40th birthday when that happened. I remembered that moment and I just couldn't believe it. I was honored and still am to be among this group of professionals that is so talented and just, I'm grateful every day that I get to collaborate with them.

Ellie Pike:

Oh, it sounds so humbling to have gone through that process of, "Hey, you're a baby therapist, give yourself some more time."

Keira Oseroff:

Yes, yes.

Ellie Pike:

Then to really be invited in and what a privilege. You talked about what really changed you was understanding the feeding dynamics model and being able to teach this to your kid. Can you tell me a little bit about what that is and what the purposes of this model?

Keira Oseroff:

Sure. The feeding dynamics really is a trust model. I think that's the most important thing, is that differentiates it from really any other model or technique, I guess, for lack of a better word. It is really staying present with and believing in that our children are born with an innate ability to regulate. That they know how to eat and that there are these bio-psychosocial drives to thrive.

Keira Oseroff:

There is hunger, there is the need for social interaction, there is the need to enjoy appetite and satisfaction. It's trusting that our kids know what to do. I think sometimes we don't trust ourselves. It's hard to trust them.

Keira Oseroff:

The cornerstone of the feeding dynamics model is a division of responsibility. That is, that parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding and children are responsible for the whether and how much.

Ellie Pike:

I know Keira said that quickly, but this simple explanation is key to understanding the model. Parents are responsible for the what, when and where of feeding. Children decide the whether and how much.

Keira Oseroff:

We decide what is offered. We decide when we're offering that, when it's meal or snack time. A family meal is people gathering around sharing the same food, eating at the same time. Doesn't have to be, "Healthy." It doesn't have to be even at the table. Sometimes it's in a restaurant. Sometimes it's a picnic. Sometimes it's on the floor on a blanket, it's a dynamic, right? It's an experience that we are prioritizing, making food and eating and parents decide what's offered and when and where, and children decide whether or not they're going to eat it and how much of it they're going to eat.

Ellie Pike:

It sounds so simple, but I know as a parent, there's natural fear of, "Well, my kid is only going to eat her dessert, never eat her vegetables, or it's just easier to feed her Cheerios or grilled cheese because I know she'll eat that," and shift what I'm offering instead of just what the family is eating.

Ellie Pike:

Obviously all of us know feeding can become much more complex because there's a lot of decisions and there's a lot of anxiety that can happen at the table. What do you say to families that are dealing with that? You can talk to me because I'm dealing with that currently.

Keira Oseroff:

If we're offering a variety of food, that's our job. if we need help and support around understanding what to offer, I think that's really understandable. There's so much information that comes at us as to what, what, what, what, what, and we're really trying to shift the conversation to how. It's not as much the what, it's the how, because over time children get what they need. If we're eating a variety of food and have good food acceptance skills, if I can, I'd like to get into a little bit about what it means to be eating competent. That's Satter's term for somebody who has a healthy relationship with food or normal eating. Somebody who's eating competent and that's made up of four things. It's having positive attitudes and beliefs about food. It's having strong food acceptance skills, the ability to make do with what we've got to try new foods and either learn to like them or not. The third is internal regulation so that what we were talking about earlier, that knowing and being able to trust myself with knowing how much is enough and managing the context around eating.

Keira Oseroff:

For kids, what that looks like is being able to come to the table or the high chair, hungry and learn to behave well there and take turns talking, learning their manners and how to pass the peas or the potatoes. It's just managing the context of that feeding environment. For adults, that contextual skills piece is being able to get a meal to the table. Eating on a regular basis, we talk about this being a trust model is how we learn to trust. That we know there's another opportunity to eat again and it's coming.

Keira Oseroff:

It gives us an opportunity to make up for our mistakes in eating. If we didn't eat enough, we know we're going to have another opportunity soon. It's really having those regular meals and snacks and avoiding grazing in between that allows kids to learn, to experience and tolerate hunger and also trust that they're going to get fed again.

Keira Oseroff:

They don't need to eat more than they want or need because that's their only opportunity. They don't eat too little because they know they're going to be grazing along the way. It's each experience as a time to practice and develop those skills.

Ellie Pike:

This is fantastic. It makes me really think through how I'm teaching my kid to do this, because I know that a lot of us can be, "Okay, what's wrong, what's wrong? Okay. Are you hungry?" Then just allow our kid to graze because food can act as a pacifier, right? This is good for me just to kind of think through how am I doing it and is this going to develop positive skills around food and recognizing hunger levels in the long run. I'm curious what some of the most common questions are that you receive from family members.

Keira Oseroff:

I would say the number one, most common question that I get from parents is how do I get my kid to eat fruits and vegetables? That is the single, I think most asked question as it relates to feeding kids. I think my answer is pretty much the same every time, which is you can't get them to eat anything. We can set the stage. We're again, going back to what we're responsible for looking at our own level of eating competence. I think that affects a lot how we feed our kids.

Keira Oseroff:

Are we providing for ourselves? If people to know how to get their kids to eat, they need to focus on what is their level of eating competence and are they taking care of themselves and how are we setting the stage and just to maintain that division of responsibility and make sure we're offering a wide variety of food and exposure over and over and over again.

Keira Oseroff:

Exposure is it's just on the table. That can be enough of an exposure, or it's on the high chair that's on her tray, that she can look and she can explore the food. The first time a food is offered or introduced, you might notice that she kind of looks at it and picks it up and holds it around in her hand. Then she might put it down or she might touch it to her lips and try to see what does this feel like. Then she might discard it or she might put it in her mouth and spit it out. Then it might go back in.

Ellie Pike:

Or feed it to our dog.

Keira Oseroff:

Or feed it to... That's right. That's right. Or say that the dog would enjoy this more than I would.

Ellie Pike:

Oh yeah. Then my favorite is feeding the dog a little and once she sees the dog is eating it, she's more willing to eat it too. It is, it's this observance of are other people eating this too, then I can eat it.

Keira Oseroff:

Oh, that's great. You hit the nail on the head. That's about the experience. I'm preparing for this webinar that I'm doing next week. One of the things I'm asking people to do is think about a favorite food memory. If you can think about a favorite food memory, do you have one?

Ellie Pike:

I think one of my favorite food memories is being a kid and eating watermelon outside and spitting the seeds out.

Keira Oseroff:

Okay. Tell me about what you liked about that, what you enjoyed about it.

Ellie Pike:

I enjoyed that it was a more free experience where there weren't rules about sitting at the table and not making a mess. Eating watermelon outside allowed for a little bit more of a mess, but then a lot of fun, because then you can have your watermelon seed spitting contest. I remember, well one, I love the juiciness and flavor of watermelon and it's my favorite food, but then they experience around it, which was arguing with my brothers about who could spit the farthest.

Keira Oseroff:

Is any part of that memory focused on nutrition?

Ellie Pike:

Not at all.

Keira Oseroff:

That's the point I'm trying to make and you learned to like watermelon. You liked it.

Ellie Pike:

Right.

Keira Oseroff:

I think that the whole stage is set for that. You're outside, you're soaking up sun and you're with people. That it really just goes back to those drives that we have. You grew up to like fruits and vegetables.

Ellie Pike:

What do you say to families that are using those coaxing methods? "Well, once you eat that, then you can have your dessert."

Keira Oseroff:

Well, I just invite them to talk about their concerns, because really, I know parents are doing the best they can. Really when we're in that space all the time, we're really operating out of a place of fear or anxiety that later they won't be okay in some way. They'll either way too much, or they won't learn to like certain things. I just try to reassure them that it can be easier. That it can be more relaxed and enjoyable and just try to help be a voice of reassurance, because there's not a lot of that out there.

Ellie Pike:

I appreciate that. Are there specific ways that research tells us or through experience, you all have learned, to teach kids about hunger levels or fullness level?

Keira Oseroff:

We don't think that you need to teach kids because it's an organic process that happens. It's really supporting them in knowing that they already know that. I think when we try to teach children, we get in a lot of trouble and it sometimes contributes to that preoccupation of that they're doing something wrong or preoccupation of food, or there's the beginning of shame, really messages. "You shouldn't need that. Do you really need that?"

Keira Oseroff:

The way that we try to teach those things undermines a child's ability to trust themselves. "Are you really hungry for that?" We're saying maybe you don't know what you're really feeling. Think about your daughter and when she starts to eat when she's hungry, when she would have a bottle. When she's hungry, she starts and she's going fast. She can't get it fast enough. Over time, what happens is she slows down, you see her slow down, right? Then sometimes they spit out the nipple or they turn their head away. She tells you, "I'm done." She knows. We need to trust them. We need to trust them. Again, it comes back to trusting ourselves because we have gotten to a place where we don't trust ourselves.

Ellie Pike:

I agree with you. I think that we're taught by culture. This is the amount you should eat in a day, this is the type of portions you should eat in a day. Our culture uses food as a reward or as a pacifier. We're not taught to slow down and just recognize what we're actually feeling or the fact that we don't actually have to finish everything on our plate if we're actually full.

Keira Oseroff:

Each experience with them eating is an opportunity to practice that. If we override that each and time, trying to get them to eat more or eat less, how are they practicing tuning in?

Ellie Pike:

Just to put out another example, as a parent you're saying my job is create the when and where and how of food. Say I sit down with my kiddo for lunchtime and I don't push food on her and I let her just kind of eat what she's wanting to eat and make it a pleasurable experience, then say 30 minutes later, she says, "I'm hungry." What's the best way to respond to that kiddo, when we're also trying to set a schedule and trust that there will be another meal time?

Keira Oseroff:

This isn't hard and fast all the time, but I think we reassure them that I hear you. We are going to have snack at whatever time or we're going to have dinner at whatever time that's coming. It's okay for them to be hungry.

Ellie Pike:

I like that. Recognizing it's okay for them to be hungry so that when it does become snack time or meal time, they're actually coming hungry to the table.

Keira Oseroff:

Yeah. Sometimes, for me, when I struggled with that at times, and no matter how much I knew and I had studied this, there's certain occasions that something gets triggered or a button gets pushed inside. I never liked to be hungry. I associated not great feelings with hunger. When my child would say, "But I'm hungry," it really took everything that I had because I didn't want my kids to be uncomfortable at all about anything. This really is beyond food. This is a metaphor for everything, for how I parent.

Ellie Pike:

Sure.

Keira Oseroff:

That's one of the things that attracted me to this as a mental health provider and as a parent, it wasn't just about the food. It's about boundaries. It's about limit setting. It's about helping them learn how to tolerate uncomfortable feelings. Not that I'm trying to induce discomfort at all, but I'm reassuring that it's okay to be hungry. It's okay and we just ate. They learn to make up for their feeding mistakes and so do we, as parents. We always have another opportunity.

Ellie Pike:

I like that you say it's okay to be uncomfortable and it's okay to feel hungry. As I thought through my personal emotions in that moment, my reaction is also, "Oh, you're uncomfortable. Let me give you food. I know what you want." But in reality, you're only asking a kid to be uncomfortable for a little while. It's not like we're asking any kid to be hungry or go without food. It's just be uncomfortable for a little while until we have our next snack or meal, which is not that long, really. Because if you had snacks in between meals, it's a couple hours, it's really okay.

Keira Oseroff:

That's right. Faithfully, it's really only a couple of hours between each time. It might only be an hour and a half or something like that. If it's 45 minutes since we've eaten, there might only be an hour and a half or two hours to go.

Ellie Pike:

I appreciate that and understanding kind of the mindset around it. I think this really can help develop trust, not only within the kiddo to trust their body and their hunger cues, but I think really trust their parent. Their parent will show up with food if their parent is able to be consistent, which is according to this model, what we're asked to do is be consistent.

Keira Oseroff:

You nailed it. They trust us. Yes, yes, yes. It's authoritative parenting. It's providing enough guidance and support so that they know that they're secure and there's enough autonomy so that they can develop competence.

Ellie Pike:

At what point does that shift? At what age is a kid starting to take on more of that for themselves versus the parent?

Keira Oseroff:

That is a great question. I wish I could show you a picture because we're not together, but it really is kind of this inverse relationship that the older the child gets, the more responsibility they take on over time. That by the time they're ready to leave, they're able to master feeding themselves so that they have all that they need to do in order to function.

Ellie Pike:

What do you say to the skeptics? I know that this is not the way that a lot of our culture teaches us to teach kids and generationally this is not necessarily what, at least my family has done generationally with kids. What do you say to skeptics? How much of this is based in research?

Keira Oseroff:

I say I understand. This is really hard. It's like swimming upstream. It's not conventional wisdom. I say anymore because our great grandmother's time, this was how they fed kids. This is what we're having for dinner, we're not short order cooking. This is it. This is what's for dinner and you can eat it or you don't have to. The way that we learn, like you said is so anti this. It's not trust at all. When we learn these things, it kind of turns us upside down, I think.

Keira Oseroff:

It's like this cognitive dissonance of everything that I thought I knew. It's a very uncomfortable feeling, but I remind them, or I just reassure them that the research really does support this and supports that a division of responsibility is the best way to feed. So much so that the American Academy of Pediatrics recognizes this as best practice. If you look at their recommendations, it is to feed according to the division of responsibility. There are numerous studies that show that pressure backfires, and that restrained feeders for people who are worried that their kids are going to to grow up to be too heavy for them, that is very problematic and often can lead to disordered eating. The research really does support this.

Ellie Pike:

The research says that if the parent tries to restrict the food of the kid, then that can lead to disordered eating long-term.

Keira Oseroff:

Yes.

Ellie Pike:

That's kind of scary because how many parents say, "No, you've had too many cookies or you've had too much butter on your bread or whatever it is that the parent sees as a fear food. Inflicting that on the kid, it makes sense that the kid ends up with a negative image of themselves or feel ashamed for wanting that food and it compounds over time.

Keira Oseroff:

I think it's also important for me to mention that we reassure parents. It's not like what we're saying is that there are no boundaries around those forbidden foods, those treat foods, or really nutrient dense, pleasurable foods or calorically dense foods.

Keira Oseroff:

We recommend that there be a serving whenever a family or a parent decides that this is a meal or a time that we're going to have dessert. One of the things I did and I know this is going to sound crazy is that I put a plate of brownies on the table and there was one for everybody, and if she wanted to eat a brownie first, that was fine. What typically happened is for the first couple of times, she looked at me like, "Really?" She gobbled up her brownie. Then she said, "I'm still hungry." I said, "Yeah, and look, there's a whole table full of food. You can have whatever you want."

Keira Oseroff:

There is a limit a lot of the times for those type foods. Then we recommend that occasionally those foods are offered in an unlimited way so that they can have the experience of having too many cookies and realizing that maybe they don't feel well or they just really enjoy it and they got their fill and they're ready to move on.

Keira Oseroff:

It can reassure parents that there is a stopping point too, that their kid has one. That is something, a concern that comes up is back to your question of what are some of the most common questions, I would think that's the second most common question I get is, "What if they don't stop?"

Ellie Pike:

I just want to keep asking a million questions, but in reality, I want to know where to find the research and the information. I know that our listeners do too. Where do you recommend people go to dive in more?

Keira Oseroff:

Sure. There's lots of ways to get information. They can always start by going to the Ellyn Satter Institute website. There is tons of information just freely given on the website, but there are also booklets and books and lots of different ways for people to learn. There are webinars for parents, as well as professionals. There are workshops for professionals. There are ways to get continuing education, but for parents specifically, there are books and webinars and coaching, really. If after taking in the information, if they're still struggling, they can reach out to the Institute for coaching or finding somebody who is well-versed in the Satter models locally near them.

Ellie Pike:

This is like a whole new rabbit hole that I can dive down into and just learn a lot more. I do want to clarify one piece, because we do talk about eating disorders a lot on our show. This episode was not focused on eating disorders. This is really focused on how do you just kind of start from a blank slate and teach kids to eat normally. But for those who do notice disordered eating and their kiddos, what's your recommendation at that point?

Keira Oseroff:

Well, if they're concerned, definitely reach out to a professional, whether it's a registered dietician, who's familiar with disordered eating, they should talk to their pediatrician or reach out to even a therapist that can do an assessment. If they're concerned, follow their gut, and really look for some of those signals that indicate that their child might be either restricting or bingeing. If that's what you're referring to. Parents know and they need to listen to their guts.

Ellie Pike:

Thank you. I think that's an important differentiator that this is by no means, are we teaching parents how to treat an eating disorder.

Keira Oseroff:

Definitely not.

Ellie Pike:

Right. This is a blank slate. We're going to teach you how to just normalize eating, and teach your kid to be competent and trust their bodies and trust you. Thank you so much for that message.

Ellie Pike:

Thank you for listening to today's show. Can you even imagine what it would be like if you had been raised to know that no food was evil and to trust your body when it told you what it needed?

Ellie Pike:

It's truly a counter-cultural exercise to love and trust ourselves rather than enforce cultural norms through shame. That being said, I want to emphasize what Keira at the end of our conversation. If you think your child is exhibiting signs of disordered eating, it's time to be proactive and reach out for help. The sooner you find a team of professionals who can untangle the eating process, the sooner your child can enjoy their life again.

Ellie Pike:

For a free conversation with a trained therapist, call Eating Recovery Center at 877-411-9578 to see if treatment is your best option. They can also provide you great resources and referrals for whatever you need.

Ellie Pike:

That number again is 877-411-9578. Thanks for listening to Mental Note podcast. Our show is brought to you by Eating Recovery Center and Path Light Mood and Anxiety Center, formerly known as Insight. If you would like to discover more about Keira, the Ellyn Satter Institute and the methods we discussed, then simply follow the links in our show notes to ellynsatterinstitute.org or our own website, mental notepodcast.com. Learn more about the people we interview and sign up for our e-newsletter at mentalnotepodcast.com.

Ellie Pike:

We'd also love it if you left us a review on iTunes, it really helps others find our podcast.

Ellie Pike:

Mental Note is produced and hosted by me, Ellie Pike, directed by Sam Pike and edited by Alexander Stork and Mike Fox.

Ellie Pike:

Till next time

Presented by

Keira Oseroff

Keira Oseroff is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist. She received her Bachelors’ degree from The George Washington University and Masters’ degr...

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