"My child just isn't a good eater!" Even when the child is growing well, frustrated parents sometimes worry when their child eats only a small amount at a time or seems too picky. The parents' responses to these common stages can unwittingly set the stage for eating and weight problems later in life.
As a mindful eating expert who helps adults to solve these issues, I believe that prevention is the best medicine. Remember: You aren't raising children, you're raising adults!
From the moment they're born, children have the ability to know when they're hungry "” and they cry to let everyone around them know, too! Of course, they also cry when they're tired, wet, hurt, or bored, but caregivers soon learn to tell the difference and try to meet each need appropriately. When they begin to eat solid foods, babies show when they've had enough by turning away from the spoon or spitting the food back. As toddlers, they seem to be in perpetual motion, barely stopping long enough to eat a handful of fishy crackers here and a few slices of banana there, yet consuming enough to fuel their growth and development.
Then why is it that once children are old enough to sit at the table, many parents begin to bribe or threaten them to finish all their dinner?
When parents make children clean the plate that they filled, they're teaching the child to ignore their innate ability to know how much fuel their bodies need. As a result, large portion sizes lead to overeating"”a lifelong problem in our abundant food environment. Instead, parents must provide a healthful balance of nutritious, delicious foods and allow the child to use their natural hunger and satiety cues to determine how much they need.
Another common tactic is bribery. "Eat all your dinner if you want dessert" translates to "You must overeat so I will reward you by letting you overeat some more!" By using sweets as a reward for good behavior or to bribe them into finishing the whole meal, kids begin to believe sweets are really special, so they want them even more.
If you're going to offer dessert, make it just another part of an enjoyable meal so kids learn to "save room for dessert" instead of becoming a member of the "clean plate club." By teaching them that eating "fun" foods in moderation is ok, they'll be less likely to develop eating issues later in life. (Think of your slim friend who eats whatever she wants, but will turn down ice cream if she's had enough to eat.)
The problems are compounded when parents pressuring their children to eat certain foods and certain portion sizes causes the dinner table to become a battleground. Rather than making them clean their plate or teaching them that foods are "bad" or "good," a calm, gentle approach guides them to eat a balance of foods that help them reach their full potential.
In short, it is not our job as parents to know how much food a child should eat at any given time, or make them eat something because it's "good" for them. Instead, it's our responsibility to teach our children about healthy eating, provide them with a variety of tasty and nutritious choices, set a good example by our own eating and physical activity habits, and most importantly, make meals a pleasant time to bond as a family. That's the best way to help your child grow up to be a "good" eater, too!
Michelle May, M.D. is the founder of the Am I Hungry? ® Mindful Eating Workshops and Facilitator Training Program that helps individuals learn to break free from mindless and emotional eating. She is the author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. (Download chapter one free.)