The Annoying Kids’ Eating Habit Parents Should Adopt

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on August 12, 2011

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We were out at our favorite Mexican restaurant when the conversation at the next table caught my ear. A young boy, probably about 4, had only eaten half of his rolled taco and declared he was full.

“You have half of it left, look at all that meat inside,” the mom said. “Finish it!”

The boy went on to finish the rolled taco and the dad chimed in with “I’m proud of you, son.”

What these parents didn’t realize was that they are teaching their son that his fullness doesn’t matter — and that eating more is better.

Do parents really want kids to eat like adults?
I understand why these parents did what they did. I’m sure the boy, like a lot of 4 year olds, doesn’t eat many protein foods so the mom feels better even when he eats items like rolled tacos. He probably has days he barely eats and days he eats a lot — they want his eating to be more “normal.”

The problem with normal eating, at least in this country, is that most people have difficulty navigating the current food environment without over-eating.

Yet most kids do well naturally. Research show that kids under 5 regulate their intake very well. Food intake may vary greatly from meal to meal, but young children are masters at getting the right amount of food for their bodies.

That is, if parents served balanced meals and allow children to be in charge of how much they eat.

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Why it’s so hard to raise an intuitive eater
I’m the first to admit that raising an intuitive eater is hard. Society tends to accept the story above — it’s pretty commonplace for parents to get kids to eat more, or less if it’s unhealthy fare. According to a 2007 study published in Appetite, 85% of parents they try to get their child to eat more at mealtime by using reasoning, praise and food rewards.

The biggest challenge, I believe, is the psychological one. As parents we want so badly to nourish our kids that we often get lost in that desire. We fail to see the big picture and the negative consequences that our actions can have over the long-term.

I work hard to make sure my 4-year old (Big A) has an appetite for meals at home. But when we go other places, like out to dinner with friends or parties, she often snacks on what I call “appetite killers.”

When this happens — and it’s finally time to sit down to dinner she usually takes a few bites (or none at all) and is done. People often give me the look that says, “You’re going to let her get away with that?!”

But if I make her eat more of the meal, what am I teaching her? It’s better to over-eat? I do talk to her, ahead of time, about saving her appetite for the meal. And when she says she’s done I make sure to ask her if she’s full.

The bottom line: I make a point to honor her hunger and fullness, even the times I’m disappointed she didn’t eat better, because I want her to grow into an adult who does the same.

Use your kids’ eating behavior as a mirror
We are role models for our kids…they are watching us. Big A will usually come up to me and ask, “Why did you stop eating ice cream.” or “why aren’t you eating.” And I tell her it’s because I’m satisfied or preserving my hunger for the meal.

How often do you fill up on food when out, only to go and finish your meal anyway? Maybe these little kids are on to something.

While kid’s eating-behavior can drive us crazy, the emotion it stirs in us can be used as a mirror to what’s really going on. Maybe we are too controlling with our own diet or eat past fullness and ignore our body’s signals?

Either way, we need to remember that we live in a crazy food environment where single food (restaurant) portions are big enough to feed a family of 4 — and appetite killers are everywhere.

We need, more than ever, to preserve kids’ natural ability to regulate food — and to adopt this approach ourselves. We’ll be much better equipped for eating well in the modern world. And if enough people do it, maybe portions (and appetite killers) will shrink too. I can dream, can’t I?

So tell me, how do you handle your child’s ever changing appetite? Any challenges?

References
Orrell-Valente et al. “Just three more bites”: an observational analysis of parents’ socialization of children’s eating at mealtime. Appetite. 2007;48 (1):37-45

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{ 38 comments… read them below or add one }

Estela @ Weekly Bite August 12, 2011 at 9:01 am

I love this post! I do my best to teach intuitive eating with my toddler.

While I’m perfectly fine with her leaving food barely touched on her plate… the hard part is the grandparents trying to contradict me and encourage her to “clean her plate” As awkward as it is… I tell them we don’t teach her to eat that way and not to encourage it.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 12, 2011 at 9:20 am

Family can be hte toughest! I think all og Big A’s grandparents finally get it even if they don’t agree with me ; )

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Becca August 12, 2011 at 9:31 am

Great post! I work in a WIC office, but dont have any children myself. Sometimes, despite my education, I loose credibility without first hand parenting experience. I love using your stories and senarios to relate to clients better and show a picture of what I mean rather then spout off advice. Thank you!!!!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 13, 2011 at 10:11 am

Thanks Becca. I appreciate it! There’s actually quite a few people on this list who don’t have kids…

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Paula August 12, 2011 at 10:26 am

I also cut the kids a lot if slack at parties or special occasions where they have been snacking before a meal. I’ve had people question me, too. I usually just tell them it’s just because it’s a special day that they can get away with that. I’ve learned that if I explain that I let the kids follow their own hunger cues I usually get a bunch of people telling me I’m wrong.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 13, 2011 at 10:12 am

I do the same Paula — and that includes keeping explanations to a minimum. Kids are also so excited at parties and so they don’t eat as well. I try to make sure they have good meals before and later that day.

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Vince August 12, 2011 at 2:35 pm

thanks Maryann. Great post. I can certainly relate to this. I was raised to finish everything on my plate and I don’t want to be that way with my son. I beleive now that letting him just eat how he wants (providing him healthy choices of course) is a much better way to go.

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Tianna August 12, 2011 at 4:57 pm

Kids truly are the very best intuitive eaters! ♥ this post :)

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Sam August 12, 2011 at 8:44 pm

Great post Maryann! I think this is a helpful summary for parents, and a gateway into learning more about feeding kids successfully. Feeding our kids well really involves letting go of our own expectations, and that’s the hard part.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 13, 2011 at 10:15 am

Sam — I think you hit the nail on the head. It really is about expectations. I don’t think parent are prepared for what normal eating behavior is for kids. You just inspired a future post!

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Christine August 13, 2011 at 4:42 pm

I am curious what you think of having children stay at the table when they’re done eating.

We try to not push our kids to eat and let them be done with a meal or snack on their own time. But, after having our preschooler rush through dinner and ask to be excused so he could go play again, we instituted a “stay at the table” rule. (The trick is that we have a VERY small house and his play led to our other child forgoing her dinner with minimal satiety so she could join him and then she would awake at 5 am hungry the next day.) We make the kids stay at the table and chat with us, even after they’re done eating until a reasonable amount of time has gone by. They are never asked to eat more, but they are asked to sit with us.

Is this encouraging over-eating? Or is it instilling reasonable civility?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 13, 2011 at 9:46 pm

Christine — we do the same thing sometimes. If my daughter is really quick to finish we ask her to stay for a little while. We remind her that dinner is about spending time with family — not just eatings. Sounds like a good strategy to me!

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Anne at Always Half Full August 13, 2011 at 5:18 pm

I have definitely been following the rule that my son tells me when he is finished, not me. He is a great eater and I just hope it continues. I started following your advice for myself last summer – listening to my own stomach, not overeating, making healthier choices. It helped me lose the rest of my baby weight!
I definitely don’t hold too many expectations for parties, or even eating at the grandparents’. Something about kids eating just fascinates other people – they just stare at him and scrutinize every bite! I think he feels the pressure and often chooses to play rather than eat. I’m like you, I make sure the rest of the day is healthy and balanced and it’s OK if one meal isn’t great or consists more of snacking than a meal.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 13, 2011 at 9:49 pm

Anne — congratuations!! I’ve heard the same thing from several different readers. Parents benefit from this advice too…which is the point of this article ; )

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Bettina at The Lunch Tray August 17, 2011 at 9:12 am

Maryann:

This is an EXCELLENT post.

I feel one of the greatest gifts my mother gave to me was teaching me the mantra, “Listen to your body.” If I wasn’t hungry, I was never made to eat. The “clean plate club” was unheard of in our house. She even took it a step further and posited that cravings might well have to do with actual nutritional need, so if you really, really felt like a particular food, it was important to pay attention to that, too. And I think her tutelage is one reason why I never much struggled with maintaining my weight in adulthood.

But as you say, we live in a crazy world now and when at a restaurant, where portions are huge and food engineered (via fat, salt and sugar) to be exceptionally delicious, I do sometimes find myself eating way past fullness just for the pleasure of it. Your post is an excellent reminder for me (forget my kids!) to get back on track in those moments.

Thanks,

Bettina

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 17, 2011 at 11:02 pm

Thanks Bettina. Sounds like you grew up in a an awesome food environment. I had to learn those skills later in life but once I did, it was so liberating! I will check out your link too.

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Elizabeth August 17, 2011 at 10:32 am

I never pushed my son to eat.He saw us eating a variety of foods and always wanted to try what we were eating. If he is full, he stops.People were writing about the food issues from the picky eater side, but what about the big eater? The article talks about kids under 5 years old, my son is almost 9.Does age make a difference?He will often consume a lot of food.I have obesity in my family, and I worry about letting my son have the say about too much.We offer really good food, but you can over eat on good food too.He is NOT overweight, but I do say no to him, especially if it’s a favorite meal and he’s going back for thirds.what do you thing about saying no?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 17, 2011 at 11:11 pm

Elizabeth — I think kids can continue to regulate if they are fed in the right manner. There are many things that can cause children to eat more than their bodies need — and sometimes parents interference is one of them. I plan to write more about the other extreme — kids that are big eaters. But if your son is going through a growth spurt like many kids his age do, you might want to consider trusting his appetite. I would talk to him about hunger and fullness and being mindful of eating. Studies shows that kids who feel restricted when it comes to food, eat in the absense of hunger. More for another post…

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Carleen August 17, 2011 at 2:01 pm

This is a great post! I can remember my parents being disappointed that I would never finish my dinner out at a restaurant as a kid. Or when I’d over fill my plate for supper and then only eat about half. But fortunately they never pushed me to eat everything and I am still able to eat off of my own fullness cues, and am still told I eat like a bird, haha! I hope to pass this on to my son and daughter on the way as they grow up too! But it is hard to see my son eat his fruit and rice or bread, nibble at his veggies and then barely touch his meat at dinner. But I just remind myself that it’s the last meal of the day, he’s eaten well for the majority of the day, and he must just be full.

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Bettina at The Lunch Tray August 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm

Hi – me again! Something about this post was niggling at me and then I remembered. Last year I wrote a post citing David Kessler, former FDA commissioner and author of The End of Overeating, in which he posits (based on studies) that kids are actually rapidly LOSING that built-on ability to self-regulate when it comes to food. Here’s that post, in case you or your readers are interested: http://www.thelunchtray.com/the-kids-are-not-all-right/

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P Reis August 17, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I feel a little sad realizing that most of us lost the ability to follow our bodies’ cues when we were kids. But I am glad to have had the opportunity to let my kids dictate to me when they’re done eating — or want more (of healthful things). It isn’t always easy because we hear our parents’ voices in our heads telling us to finish what’s on our plates — but it’s so worth it in the long run!

As for big dinners or parties: people would do well to remember that kids are often distracted at these gatherings. They don’t eat a lot because they’re busy and want to keep playing. I’ve often found my oldest will suddenly be ravenous as soon as we get home. No surprise there, and I always make sure she gets something protein-packed like yogurt or peanut butter toast, because 9 times out of 10 what was consumed at the party (or whatever) was sweets or maybe fruit, which is still pretty sugary even though it’s hundreds of times better than processed sugar!

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Cathy Baker August 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

I am the original junk food junkie, my nephew (2) who I watch, loves to snack. So I control my junkie time until he isn’t around, and provide one meal that he can snack.
Carrots & hummus, Fruits & veggies, tuna crackers, hummus crackers he loves it all & enjoys being able to feed his snacking senses.

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Jennifer August 21, 2011 at 10:08 pm

Thanks for this post! I’m so tired of hearing someone comment about what a good eater my child is just because he finishes his plate! I love your blog and have followed it for a few months now. I’ve added you to my blogroll on my new blog officially launching at the beginning of September. Keep up the good work!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 23, 2011 at 7:43 am

Thanks Jennifer. I appreciate it! Will check your blog out too.

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Lisa M. August 22, 2011 at 3:57 am

Some great points. My mother-in-law is of the “clean your plate” club (although my husband has fairly good eating habits, so it didn’t hurt him too much) and is quick to dive in and start feeding our toddler (18 mo) rather than letting her feed herself. I usually try not to worry, knowing that grandma is only around for a few days 4-5 times per year. I often remind myself that it’s the average intake over 2-3 days which counts.
The food at my daughter’s daycare seems to be carb-heavy, so I try to ensure she gets fruit, veggies, & protein for dinner, before I offer carbs. Like many toddlers, she enjoys “dipping” her food, but is just as happy with hummus, mustard, or HP sauce.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 23, 2011 at 7:47 am

Lisa — both my mom and mother in law had trouble with the mess of self feeding when my son was under 2. But they only fed my son once a week at most so not such a big deal. Now that he’s 2 1/2 they let him go at it. I just try not to give them one of the messier meals (like spaghetti).

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StickToIt! Magnetic Meal Planner August 23, 2011 at 7:57 am

I absolutely love this post! Finally, some validation for what I’ve always done with my kids! I have observed that sometimes they eat a lot and sometimes next to nothing, but I always figured they weren’t going to let themselves starve. And so far, they haven’t! lol! :)

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moremadder August 23, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Just found your blog when flailing around looking for help choosing yogurt at the grocery store. Thanks for providing all this great info!
I started out with this “mind-full-ness” philosophy, but it seemed to me that at my son’s current age–he’s about to turn 3–distractability is a big problem. He’s likely to say he’s full just because he’s bored and wants to move on to something else. Then he complains of being hungry an hour later at bedtime. So I do push back a bit when he says he’s full. Do you have any thoughts on that?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD August 24, 2011 at 8:23 am

Moremadder — you make a great point. I suggest parents guide their kids when it comes to this. So when a child says he’s full, parents can let him or her know when the next meal is. If my 4-year old takes a bite of dinner and is done, I tell her that the kitchen is closed until breakfast. If kids know they will get food an hour later, they are not incentivized to eat until full at mealtime. Sometimes kids need to get hungry to learn to eat thr right amount. Make sense?

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moremadder August 24, 2011 at 2:30 pm

I am going to show this to my husband … he thinks sending the kid to bed hungry means he wakes us up earlier in the morning. So my son can talk his way into a nighttime snack on the nights when dad is handling bedtime!

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eva @5FruitsNVeggies December 30, 2011 at 10:45 am

the big lesson i learned from the way my kids eat (something that has annoyed me to no end) is their SLOW eating…um, and here i am trying to speed them up….so this is one thing i have been working on–is slowing down eating…..
and btw, i mentioned in a comment on your other blog post, that i got the link to your posts from another blogger–duh, i got them from you : ) ok i’m a 40 yr old tired mom ; )

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Joe Mears December 31, 2011 at 9:45 am

this all sounds great unless you have an underweight child who just has no interest in food…. my daughter at 10 is very very thin. there aren’t many foods she doesn’t like, but she would always rather be doing something else…. and even if there’s nothing else until breakfast, she won’t care!!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD December 31, 2011 at 11:50 am

Hi Joe,

Thanks for your comment. You need to work with your pediatrician on your child’s growth. Is he or she concerned? There are some children who will not get enough to eat and that can be due to sensory issues, selective eating, family feeding dynamics (feeling pressure) and undectected medical/allergic issues etc. But no matter what the problem is, research shows pressuring kids to eat only makes matters worse. Some children eventually respond with overeating but others will undereat. So what I’m saying is talk to your pediatrician and get a referal to a pediatric dietitian if needed. For more on selective eating see this post http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2010/05/picky-eating-part-1-how-to-tell-if-your-picky-eater-needs-help/

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Joe Mears January 2, 2012 at 5:59 am

the only problem is that she isn’t concerned whether she eats or not… if we didn’t have a rule about having something to eat (sometimes just a couple of mouthfuls) at every family meal time, she would happily eat nothing. she is healthy, happy and average height. she’s not a picky eater, like i said she likes almost everything. she is now 10 and recently asked for seconds for the first time ever, and has once told me she’s hungry….in 10 years!!! I can see that your advice and the research works for kids who might eat too much if pushed, but it would not work for all families.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 2, 2012 at 6:59 am

Joe,

Thanks for your comment again. Have you ever tried letting her take the lead with meals? There is a small percentage of kids who will not get enough to eat when given regular meals and snacks but there is usually a reason for it as mentioned in my last comment. If there is not an underlying reason for her decreased eating, she should be able to get enough to eat without pushing. The research is pretty clear that pressuring kids to eat has the opposite effect and can cause early satiety in some cases.

The problem is not what your child eats now, but how her eating will be when she is an adult. I recently met a woman who was super thin as a kid and her parents made a big deal about it and they were always trying to get her to eat at meals. When she got much older she started eating too much and ended up with a weight problem (not saying this happens in every case just one example). This is the point of the story because many toddlers have low appetites their growth slows and parents make them eat more. Once they are older this can backfire.

But eating can be complex and like I said, speaking to a pediatric dietitian can help immensely. Having a one bite rule can work in many families especially when kids are older. Plus, it’s no surprise your child is getting more hungry as she is approaching a big growth spurt (puberty) and you should see her appetite gradually increase.

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leda January 11, 2013 at 5:57 pm

I believe in listening to my body but… the problem we have with our child who spends half the time with her other parent is that she only wants to eat “bad things” and has learned the trick that if she says she’s full she doesn’t have to eat “good stuff” like vegetables etc BUT then she claims to be hungry after dinner ends and wants to eat dessert foods or snack foods like cookies. The other kids eat well and a good variety of foods so we trust them when they say they are full or are hungry. We try to serve foods she enjoys but we don’t eat the highly processed foods she eats at her other house so how do we constructively handle this situation with this one child and not send bad messages to her and the other kids? Any advice?

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Kayo April 26, 2014 at 10:37 pm

I understand that it’s not a good idea to say things like if you don’t eat your dinner, you can’t have dessert. I also know that I should let my kids decide when they’re full and let them decide what they will eat or not eat (meaning I can offer chicken, broccoli, and pasta, and it’s okay if they only eat their pasta). So what do I do when they choose to eat only a small portion of their meal, a few bites of pasta, for instance because I let them dictate when they are “full” but then expect to still eat dessert? Should I say “if you’re full, then there is no room for dessert”? To me that’s pretty much the same as saying, if you don’t eat your dinner. You can have dessert.

Or, if they eat a small meal because they’re “full,” and then they tell me a half hour later they’re hungry. Should I let them eat or stick to no eating until the next scheduled mealtime?

Thank you.
Kayo

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD April 27, 2014 at 11:04 pm

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