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Teaching Kids to Eat Healthy: Q&A with Feeding Expert Katja Rowell

Today and for the rest of this week, I’m beyond thrilled to present my 3-part interview with feeding expert Katja Rowell, M.D.

With the raging hysteria over the obesity epidemic and tons of misinformation about healthful eating, most parents are at a loss about how to feed their kids. In fact, our entire culture is.

That’s where Dr. Rowell comes in.

Dr. Rowell is a graduate of the University of Michigan medical school and served as a family physician in urban and rural clinics and at a university student health service. Struck by the prevalence of disordered eating and feeding and related health problems, Dr. Rowell founded Family Feeding Dynamics and teaches the importance of a healthy feeding relationship to health care providers, family therapists and childcare staff.

She helps parents through workshops and provides personalized solutions and support for families struggling with feeding. She also consults with corporate clients, nutrition education and public health projects. And she’s a member of the clinical faculty with the Ellyn Satter Institute.

Dr. Rowell believes that establishing a healthy feeding relationship –  the HOW children are fed – is the missing piece in addressing disordered eating, childhood overweight and damaging dieting behaviors. She writes an excellent blog, which I highly recommend reading.

Now, without further ado, here’s her incredibly insightful interview!

Q: You’ve mentioned before that you think the current feeding approach is ineffective. How come?

A: We hear so much about the “obesity” crisis, but I think of it more as a “feeding crisis.” We have seen rising rates of unhealthy weight gain, but we are also seeing increased diagnoses of eating disorders in children, a veritable epidemic of problematic picky eating, and two-thirds of teens are dieting with half using extreme measures like fasting, vomiting, laxatives and diet pills.

I truly think as a culture, we are still barreling towards rock bottom in terms of our relationship to food, at a time when there is more talk about ‘nutrition, weight, health, moderation’ blah, blah, blah than ever before.

I think our entire approach to food is off. We approach food from a classic control model. It hasn’t worked for the last thirty years, so now we are told to just ‘try harder and start younger’ basically.

We eat, and are encouraged to eat (by the health care world and dieting and weight loss industry) based on external rules. Some online calculator tells us how many calories to eat, how big our portions should be, or how many points we can eat.

Have you ever tried mypyramid for kids? It literally gives you a total calorie goal with suggested meals and snacks with measurements in 1/8th increments. This is not how kids eat.

This external way of trying to judge how much to eat or feed fails. More than 90 percent of diets fail.

We make calculation errors when we try to cognitively control what we eat. For example, studies show that when we THINK a food is low-fat, or even just labeled ‘organic,’ we tend to eat more to compensate.

We need to get back to eating based on internal cues. Am I hungry or full? Or maybe even, I’m full, but I am enjoying this so much I am going to have more.

Unfortunately we are feeding our children in a control model. One recent study showed that child-care workers made ten times more comments about food that were about control, trying to get a child to eat more (ironically since the hysteria is about obesity) such as: “eat two more bites, then you can have dessert,” or “make a happy plate.” They made very few comments asking children to tune-in to internal cues, like, “If you are still hungry you may have more…” Is that child learning to tune in? Will that child be an adolescent who eats based on internal cues?

A friend recently went to a baby shower and said all the moms of the older infants were writing down every bite their healthy little ones were eating. There is a frenzied sense among many moms about “how much” their babies should eat.

I get asked at workshops, “what’s a portion,” and “how much do I give,” and they can’t even wrap their brains around the idea that they can relax and follow the child’s lead. Their children will tell them how much they need. I have to say, it makes me despair a little. It seems like the control issue is getting more, not less intense and starts ever younger.

The choice is ours. We can either choose to feed our children in a way that nurtures and sustains their inborn abilities, or we can feed to sabotage and burry them.

Q: Please tell us more about your feeding approach.

A: I found Ellyn Satter’s work first as a mom. I thought, as a family doctor that I was an expert. With pretty much no training (yes, that’s right, your pediatrician or family doctor likely has no idea about childhood feeding), I had been giving feeding “advice” all along.

After I had my daughter, I realized pretty fast that I largely knew what, but not how to feed. My experiences with my daughter and feeding through the trust model, which inherently trusts the child to eat and grow in a way that is right for her, have been a revelation. I joke that I am an evangelist who has “seen the light” and I want to shout out on the rooftops. “It doesn’t have to be so hard!”

I work very hard to counteract the hysteria there is around feeding, nutrition, size, etc. Feeding from a place of anxiety, worry and stress messes up the process and children won’t do as well.

I get to feed from a place of confidence and nurturing. Sure I still get meltdowns over what snack I packed, and whining for ice cream but I know how to deal with it, and overall there is very little conflict around food.

Our family meals are the best parts of my day. I have done a lot of reading, research and training into this, and I know that I am feeding in a way that is supporting my daughter’s intuitive skills and gives her a base that I hope will help her weather the cultural craziness we have around food.

This feeding approach is a lot of work. It’s not just, “do whatever.” I follow the Division of Responsibility in Feeding, and that’s what I work on with clients and teach at workshops.  I have to choose, buy and prepare the food and be reliable about the structure, the family meals and the pleasant atmosphere. My child has to show up, be polite (as is age appropriate) and decide how much to eat from what I have provided.

It is ‘simple’ but a lot of work. It is incredibly gratifying to hear back from clients, or even parents who are reading my blog that this approach to feeding is bringing joy back to their family tables. To me this is the best preventive medicine there is.

Q: What are the key ways parents can help their kids build a healthy relationship with food?

A: I think the first step is to honestly ask yourself, “How is feeding going?” Our cultural food norm is so abnormal. There is so much conflict around food. One mom told me dinner felt like “45 minutes of hostage negotiations.”

Feeding and eating with your children should not be full of tension, anxiety and conflict. (The fights over two-bites, bribing with dessert etc,, spending 95 percent of the time focusing on who is eating what or how much…)

Then get educated (I knew I needed help, and am just grateful I found what I believe to be the best feeding model); then do the work. Be thoughtful about providing reliable, structured meal and snack times.

Offer a variety of good tasting foods, enjoy those foods yourself, make an effort to sit down and eat with your child whenever possible. Have an expectation of mastery and success.

What does not help, which is what most parents and schools are doing, is lecturing about nutrition, what foods are “good” for you, what foods to “avoid,” you know, the red-light vs. green light foods, or the “growing vs. treat foods.”

Thanks so much, Dr. Rowell, for a fantastic interview! Be sure to stay tuned for part two tomorrow!

Teaching Kids to Eat Healthy: Q&A with Feeding Expert Katja Rowell

Margarita Tartakovsky, MS

Margarita is an associate editor at She writes about everything from taking compassionate care of yourself at any weight, shape, and size, to coping healthfully with difficult emotions. Her goal is to give readers practical, empowering tips to better their lives, and to remind you that whatever you're struggling with, you're never, ever alone.

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APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2010). Teaching Kids to Eat Healthy: Q&A with Feeding Expert Katja Rowell. Psych Central. Retrieved on March 29, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Sep 2010
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