Parents take it for granted that children know how to breathe. We don’t typically hover over every breath, coaxing and directing. And yet, children breathe in and out all day, all on their own. When it comes to eating, we have a harder time trusting our children.
We want the best for them and we’re not always convinced that they know enough or are capable enough to eat to survive, let alone thrive. But in fact, humans are hard wired to stay alive, to eat just as well as to breathe. Our bodies cue us when we are hungry and when we are full. It is a child’s responsibility to pay attention to their own bodies and to be in charge of their own eating. It is the parent’s responsibility to provide adequate amounts of a variety of healthy food on a regular and appropriate schedule. When we both tend to our own jobs, food fights generally vanish, meals can become enjoyable, and children eat well enough.
Parents should ensure there is plenty of nutritious food, prepared in an appealing way, provided at regular meals and snack time. Serve things you know your child will like as well as different foods to expand their repertoire. Most children, particularly young ones, will say no to something new the first dozen or more times it is offered. Continue to matter-of-factly include these foods on the menu. Model varied, healthy eating; children pay more attention to what we do than to what we say. Try to have a daily family meal when possible. It should be a time to catch up on the day, enjoy each others’ company, and share good food.
Set limits about when food is available—at meals and snack time. “It is not time to eat now. Dinner will be in half an hour, you can have as much to eat then as you want.” Meals should not be an open-ended affair, with children coming and going as they like. “When you leave the table to go play during dinner time I see that you are done. You will be able to eat again at the next snack time.” Young children need to eat more frequently than older ones. Snacks should be offered far enough from lunch or dinner that the child is hungry but not starving at meal time. Think of snacks as part of the daily eating plan, with the same nutritional guidelines as meals, rather than as junk food indulgences.
Don’t engage in power struggles over eating (“eat more” or “eat less”). The child will resist in direct proportion to your efforts to get them to eat as you want them to, or will use food as a way to “push your buttons”. Do not try to control what or how much your child eats during designated eating times. Their eating will vary from meal to meal and week to week. Don’t use foods for punishments or rewards. Remember that whether a child eats or not is not a statement about how much they love or respect you.
Part of your job of providing food is training them in meal planning and food choices. Engage children from an early age in food preparation. A child who has helped cook a vegetable has a vested interest in it. While limiting the amount of non-nutritious food in the house, consider allowing children to pick out one food a week at the grocery store, no matter how healthy or junky it is. It gives them a sense of control and ownership over their eating, can increase adventurousness, and can take away the appeal of the forbidden. Offering this is particularly important for children who sneak foods. It addresses their feelings of food deprivation when they know that they will in fact be able to have (a reasonable amount of) the coveted food each week.
Encourage them to pay attention to their body cues. “Is your stomach telling you that you are full or still hungry?” Problems come in when we teach children to ignore or override the body’s natural signals. When parents say, “Finish everything on your plate (even though your stomach is telling you that you are full),” or “You’ve had enough, you can’t have another helping (even though your body is telling you that you still need more nourishment),” we are training our children to disassociate eating from hunger and satiation, and to base eating on external expectations or requirements. When we eat while absorbed with something else, such as the television, we also are at risk of failing to pay attention to our body signals and thus over- or under-eating.
It is important to recognize that children have different appetites, just as they have different activity levels, interests, academic skills, or levels of sociability. Some children love food and eat with sensuous enjoyment while others see it as a chore. Some are highly sensitive to tastes and textures, while others are indifferent to what they are eating. Some will eat anything, while others are picky eaters. Some cannot go five minutes past meal time without falling apart, while others completely forget to eat. Some are naturally leaner while others are stockier. It is important to know your child and to take their temperament, their physiology and their preferences into account. You cannot make your child into someone he or she is not, but you can increase their flexibility and adaptability.
Even if your child has food allergies or medical or dietary concerns, you can still follow these guidelines within the limits imposed by the health restrictions.
If you are not policing every bite, you may be surprised at how many of your struggles around food will resolve themselves. However, if you continue to face severe eating problems, consult with a professional. They may be the result of a physical or medical condition or deeper emotional or psychological problems.
A recommended reading is: How to Get Your Child to Eat … But Not Too Much, by Ellen Satter, Bull Publishing Co: Boulder, CO, 1987.