Estimated reading time: 8 minutes
Katja Leccisi, MS, RDN
Photo: Kelly Sijapati, Illinois, USA
Most parents worry about how much their children eat. How do we take the pressure off and foster a healthy relationship with food?
Did you know that healthy babies are born with an innate ability to know how much food they need? Breastfeeding your baby, you have most likely learned to be aware of her needs, by being responsive, feeding her on cue and not on a specific schedule, inviting her to nurse whenever she shows signs that she is hungry. Your breastfeeding baby stops drinking when she’s had enough, although she may still enjoy the comfort of being at your breast!
As a parent, one of your roles in the early years is to help your children preserve this innate ability to eat according to their individual needs. When complementary foods are introduced, many parents begin to struggle with figuring how much their baby “should” eat.
And as their babies grow into toddlers and increasingly independent, parents’ questions about how much of which foods their children are eating usually increase exponentially.
As a parent, or when you were a child, did you ever hear or say any of the following?
- “Eat one more bite for mommy.”
- “What a good boy, you ate everything on your plate.”
- “No dessert for you, you didn’t eat enough dinner.”
- “No, you may not have more, you have eaten enough.”
The division of responsibility
Let’s take a step back and look at an overall approach to feeding our children. The Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR) is a model that was developed by Ellyn Satter, an American nutritionist and family therapist. DOR defines who is responsible for what, as pertains to feeding and eating.
Whether for toddlers or teenagers, parents decide what, when, and where to feed their children, while the children are responsible for how much and whether they eat. Young babies lead their mother if they are fed on cue. And, yes, you read that correctly: the children decide how much and even whether they eat at any given meal or snack time.
Let your child eat!
Don’t worry, this does not mean that they get to eat whatever they want, whenever they want it! You, as the parent, have already decided which foods will be offered, when you sit down at the table together, and where, for a meal or snack. But after that, your job is done. Sit down, relax, enjoy your meal with your family, and just let your child eat!
Letting little ones decide how much they eat is often the biggest challenge for parents, and it is the obstacle I see most often in the families with whom I work. I struggled with this myself when my daughter was a baby—and smaller than average—even though I am a nutritionist!
It can be really hard not to project our worries onto our kids.
Why is it so difficult to let children eat without any pressuring, coercing, or rewarding? When parents are worried, emotions tend to run high, and the pressure builds. When parents push at the table, children will generally resist, and then the power struggle is on! It may help you worry less to know that in the early years, all emotionally and physically healthy kids who have consistent access to enough food will eat only what they need. They will self-regulate. They will seek food when they are hungry and stop eating when they’ve had enough. Respecting these signals is fundamental to having a healthy relationship with food.
Helping your children listen to their bodies
How can you help your children learn to listen to their bodies? First, help them recognize hunger.
Ask them, “How do you feel when you’re hungry?” Some of the physical sensations associated with hunger are a “growling” stomach, an empty feeling or slight cramps, less energy, difficulty concentrating, weakness, headache, or moodiness.
Little ones may not yet understand that their stomach aches because they need food. Older kids, especially busy ones, may need guidance to realize that a cranky mood may be caused by hunger. Fostering a positive mood at the table will help your children be relaxed enough to tune in to their own needs. Do your best to trust them and let them do the job of eating. Try to avoid words and actions that might make them ignore their body’s signals of hunger and satiety. Pressuring them to eat, or restricting how much they eat, discourages them from listening to their own bodies.
Power struggles at the table will disappear once your child is in control of how much he is allowed to eat.
When your child says that she’s done eating, regardless of whether her plate is empty or not, ask her if she is satisfied. “How full does your stomach feel?” is a good cue for little ones. The goal is that most of the time, they eat until they are comfortably satisfied, feeling full but not stuffed. Help your younger ones by giving them cues, such as, “We listen to our tummy and stop eating when it feels full.” You can talk about eating what we need, and acknowledge that our bodies and needs are different. Look around your table, at the adults too. Sometimes in our house, one of the children eats literally twice as much as I do! I wonder how on earth could he pack two huge burritos and salad and a bowl of ice cream into that belly? And then it seems that the next day he only picks at his food.
Feelings of hunger can vary tremendously from one day or week to the next. If you understand that this is perfectly normal, you don’t need to worry about it. What children eat at any particular meal will depend on how much of what sorts of foods they ate earlier in the day. Lots of other things can affect your children’s hunger, too, including their age and stage of growth, their health, their sleep, and their level of physical activity. And that’s why even with a schedule in place (the when of feeding your children), there must be some flexibility built into it.
Help your children self-regulate their eating by:
- Teaching them to recognize the physical sensations of hunger and fullness.
- Encouraging them to respect and respond to their bodies’ signals about hunger and fullness.
- Avoiding doing anything that would make them ignore their bodies’ signals, such as pressuring them to finish everything on their plates, or denying second helpings.
- Remembering that many factors affect hunger and hunger can vary from day to day.
Choosing portion sizes
Letting your kids manage portion size is another great way to help them learn to eat as much as they need. Serving family-style meals (putting all the food on the table on big plates) and letting children serve themselves is an ideal way to help them learn this important skill.
Remind them to take a little of everything, even if they don’t think they like it, and that they have to leave enough for everyone. There will be natural lessons when your child takes too much and leaves half of it on his plate, “Your eyes were bigger than your belly.” It doesn’t take long for them to learn this. Conversely, allow them to have seconds or more. And be sure to let them know what is for dessert if you’ve included it on the menu, so they can leave some room for it if they want it. If they aren’t serving themselves (for example, if you are serving in the kitchen), you can still ask them how hungry they are and how much they want rather than automatically serving a set portion on to their plates.
When you ask them how much they want, you are respecting them, and giving them control.
Ask yourself some tough questions
Aside from specific worries about food and eating, parenting style comes into play. Letting your children have control over how much they eat can be more or less difficult for you depending on your overall attitude. A more controlling or authoritarian parent may have a tendency to say things like, “You have to finish everything on your plate” or “No, you may not have seconds, you have eaten enough.” An overly permissive parent might ask, “What would you like instead?” and then prepare something different for their child who won’t eat what’s on the menu. Aim for an authoritative (not authoritarian) approach that is firm but warm.
Authoritative parents do not use pressure and they make no fuss. With this approach, you are giving your children guidance and structure, but leaving them enough room to be themselves. The authoritative approach sounds like this: “It’s lunch time. This is what we are eating. Come sit down at the table. Eat as much or as little as you like, but when the meal is over, the kitchen is closed.”
Most of us have a tendency toward one style around food, though it may or may not be our overall parenting style. Sometimes two parents in the household may not have the same style, which invites a discussion between you! Feeding our children invites us to take a look at our own attitudes toward food and feeding. How do you see your feeding style? Letting your children eat without interference is about trusting them, not about controlling them.
If you are struggling with letting your child decide how much to eat, if it feels wrong to you, then you may need to ask yourself why this is so. Is your personal history with food somehow interfering with your ability to be an authoritative, responsive feeder? Or are you receiving a lot of pressure from outside sources about how much your child “should” eat?
If you are worried about your child’s eating, or about his growth or health, you may want to seek the support and guidance of a pediatric nutritionist.
To summarize, as you allow your children to decide how much to eat:
- Trust their innate ability to know how much to eat.
- Let them serve themselves and let them manage portion sizes.
- Ask them how hungry they are before serving food on to their plates.
- Look at your feeding style and favor an authoritative approach.
Once you have a structure and menu in place, your children own the choice whether to eat or not.
Take a deep breath and trust them!
Eating together should be pleasant. By sharing enjoyable, pressure-free meals with your children, you are guiding them towards having a healthy relationship with food, which is, of course, our overall goal.
Katja Leccisi, MS, RDN is a registered dietitian-nutritionist in both Canada and the United States. She has more than 20 years’ experience working with families and educators in clinical, community, and workshop settings in both countries. Her first book, How to Feed Your Kids: Four Steps to Raising Healthy Eaters, will shortly be released. Katja is the mother of a young adult daughter, and the stepmother of two primary school-aged children. She lives in Mont-Tremblant, Quebec, Canada, where she enjoys yoga, meditation, music, gardening, cooking, and a very active outdoor life all year-round. Contact her, and join the conversation at www.facebook.com/howtofeedyourkids.