Raising Competent Eaters vs Healthy Eaters

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Raising kids can be complicated -- especially when it comes to messages about food and health. Dana Sturtevant and Hilary Kinavey say the best approach is to focus on raising competent eaters instead of healthy eaters. The Educators and Activists stopped by to explain.

Competent eaters:

  • Feel good about food and eating
  • Like a variety of food and are open to learning to like new food
  • Grow up knowing how to navigate the world of food and eating without their parents micromanaging them


Parent reactions are rooted in their own anxiety and relationships with their bodies. Manage your anxiety instead of focusing on your child’s weight.

Consider yourself a guide to the world of food instead of a rule maker:

  • Let kids have experiences.
  • Talk about what worked and what didn’t. And how they feel.
  • Teach them about hunger and fullness instead of portions and nutrients.


American Pediatrics Association’s 2016 guidelines discourage dieting and recommend parents not talk about weight with kids.

Families coming together at the table has been show to reduce children’s engagement in all kinds of risky behaviors (drugs, sex, etc). Kids learn by watching their parents eat (often the same sex parent). Not everyone will come to the table with the same level of hunger. Follow the Division of Responsibility.

Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility:

  • Parents are in charge of what, when, and where
  • Children are in charge of how much and whether


Talk to your kids about body diversity. Trust your child’s appetite and growth:

  • Parents can change this in a generation by teaching kids that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. Know that not all kids are going to be small. And we can’t tell something about someone’s health by looking at them.
  • Weight stigma hurts people. Shame is not motivating.
  • Create a judgment free food environment. Avoid talking about foods being healthy or unhealthy, good or bad. Don’t talk about food as poison. Kids are not mature enough to know what you mean.
  • Weight gain during puberty is normal and to be expected, and this is often when dieting starts, sometimes because the adults in the kid’s life are worried about these natural changes in weight.
  • Schools would benefit from talking about weight stigma like a form of discrimination. We need to address the weight stigma that our kids are experiencing at schools and in medical offices. As parents we need to be proactive and protect kids from this.
  • Help kids build resilience with peers and know that their bodies have value – that others are wrong.
  • Discourage dieting. Apps that recommend kids track food and/or calories and think about exercise for the sole purpose of weight loss and cosmetic fitness are harmful.