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.
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?
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