Interview with Rachel Rothman from Nutrition in Bloom
The topic of feeding children is a popular conversation among caregivers, as it is a crucial aspect of parenting. To provide the best for our children, we often seek advice and suggestions for new meal ideas. On the playground, discussions on this topic are common as we share challenges and successes with various feeding strategies. To gain a deeper understanding of this complex issue, it’s often helpful to turn to an expert to clarify questions raised by caregivers, so we spoke with pediatric dietitian, founder of Nutrition in Bloom, and mother of two children, Rachel Rothman.
Rachel is a highly qualified registered dietitian with extensive experience in the food industry, academic, clinical, and classroom settings. She holds a B.S. in Food Science from UC Davis and a Master's degree in Nutrition Education from Teacher's College, Columbia University. With her expertise and background, Rachel has created and implemented numerous successful nutrition education programs for children of varying ages. Additionally, she completed her dietetic internship at the San Diego VA Medical Center and went on to work with a pediatric hospital in the area.
Tell us how you became a Pediatric Dietitian and started Nutrition in Bloom?
I started my career in the food industry when I studied food science in undergrad and my first job was with a company who manufactured natural food colors. Soon I left to get my Masters in Nutrition Education, began working with kids, and developing education programs. I did my internship as a dietitian and worked at a local children’s hospital, and knew this is where I wanted to have a career. Eventually I began my own practice after many years honing my clinical skills, having worked with the hospital feeding teams. It was 6 years ago I started my own practice and love being able to support families. As a mother of two children I like to be able to provide care in a different more personalized way, which I can do with my own practice.
Parenting books often recommend using food as an incentive to listen. Do you recommend this?
A big focus should be on helping kids develop a positive and healthy relationship with foods from a place of interval motivation. That is hard when you pressure or bribe, which is not something I recommend. When we use foods as a reward, like a sweet, we label certain foods as having a ‘specialness’. It would be better to place all foods on a level playing field.
My daughter often doesn't eat dinner and later asks for cereal. Is allowing her to eat later, okay? How can a parent best address this?
Ellyn Satter is a pediatric dietitian and family therapist, who has created something called the Division of Responsibility. This feeding framework states the following: parents are responsible for what, where of feeding, and when and children are responsible for how much, and whether of eating. It is parents’ responsibility to provide children with food but it is not our job to make sure they eat it.
When we think about a child not eating dinner, I acknowledge that dinner can be stressful for parents and children. Often children have had a long day too and it is normal for them to not want to sit and have a long meal. With that, a bedtime snack is a great option to feed your child one more meal and provide them with another opportunity to eat. This also provides children with the autonomy to listen to their hunger and eat when it makes sense for them. Instead of thinking, I need to get my kids to eat a big dinner, try to reframe that as, how can I make sure I am providing my child with food throughout the day so they can be nourished in a way that is right for them.
Sometimes we do dinner just for the kids and parents eat later. Is it ok to not eat the majority of weekday meals with your children?
It is completely fine to do whatever works best for your family. Family meals are a nice way to connect with your children, model dinner behavior, and provide a sense of togetherness. However, you can also accomplish that by treating your children’s meal as your appetizer or eating meals together on weekends. At the end of the day your family needs to do whatever works best for your dynamic and keeps the stress levels down when it comes to mealtime.
For selective eaters, is it better to get any food into them or is there a good way to introduce new foods?
In the short-term is your child having their needs met and are they growing at the proper rate? If the answer is yes, then we can look at the long term, where we can add more variety to their meals and gently expose them to new foods. When you do expose your children to new foods be sure to give them a small amount and do not expect they will eat them right away. When you are planning for a selective eater, it is best practice to make the case of their plate foods you know they like and add one new item. Not every child can handle seeing a new food on their plate, the sight of something can be triggering for some children, and you might want to introduce it to the table on a separate plate for your children to consider. Another tool to give your kids support at mealtime is to have a “no thank you” bowl on the table, where kids are allowed to put something, they decide they do not want to eat, without putting pressure on them trying the food.
Do you recommend Vitamins?
On a case-by-case basis we will look at the child’s eating habits and whether they are getting enough nutrients from their food. It is common for parents to fear they are not meeting your children’s needs and feel they need to make up for what might be lost in their foods (or lack of) with vitamins.
What are some go-to-snacks you keep stocked for your children?
This is very dependent on what your children eat. If packaged snacks work better for your family than making sure they are available when you need them is good. Sometimes children like carrots, yogurts, carrots, or a special muffin you make.
I am a big advocate for doing whatever is best for your family and keeps the stress down. I would be doing parents a disservice to put too much pressure on them and if packaged snacks work best for you, then do it!
If you are in need of guidance, then I recommend pairing two food groups together for a snack, for example cheese and crackers. This helps to make children feel more satisfied. I have a blog post with more information about snacks ideas.
Can you recommend tips for introducing new foods to our children without having tantrums?
It is important to not pressure and I do not recommend forcing children to try new foods if they do not want to. We want to make kids feel safe and keep decrease their stress around eating. Trying new foods can be stressful, so if you want to introduce new foods you might need to introduce them at a time in the day separate from snack or mealtime. The moment your child knows you want them to try a new food, they already do not want to. Offering new foods in its own space takes the pressure off everyone.
For busy families on a budget, what are affordable ways to feed your children?
Access to food is very different for each family, I find in our society people want to give advice about feeding children, but we do not know what each family can afford, or culturally, what foods they eat. Packaged foods can be vilified; but frozen, canned, and packaged foods can be just as nutritious as fresh foods. We are seeing prices rise and food shortages (like eggs), and these obstacles can make feeding your family difficult. It is good to remember that right now might be a hard phase, and though you cannot afford some foods right now, it doesn't mean you won’t ever be able to. While you are in a difficult place, do the best you can, and consider options like batch cooking. This is where you make a large quantity of rice that will be used as the staple for your meals throughout the week. Also, I have a blog post on how to repurpose leftovers.
Can labeling food “good” or “bad” be harmful?
Creating healthy language around food can lead to healthier relationships with food. The best practice is to call food what it is and not label different items “good” or “bad”. Children are concrete thinkers in very black-and-white and when we shame certain foods, they can cause children to develop feelings of guilt. It is a lot easier and healthier to not use labels and simply call food by its name.
You have a very informative and fun social media account. What do you love most about connecting with families online?
It is important for me to let parents know they are not alone and to make them feel okay about whatever they manage when feeding their kids. I also want to create a support network for parents, for instance if you have a selective child (a kinder way to address a picky eater). Adding stress to something we do three or more times per day doesn't help to feel supported. and I created a social media presence to take the stress off parents. I work with a lot of families one-on-one to provide support in my business; and online I am here to show you ways that can help you feed your family, but most importantly that your best is good enough!
The interview has been edited for length and clarity.