Do you trust your child to be a healthy eater? I believe that for many parents, this is a tough question to answer.
Tom thought he did trust his twin toddlers, but encouraged them to take “two more bites for Dad” before they left the dinner table. “It always makes me feel better knowing they tried and had at least a good bite of everything on their plate.”
Liza and Bill stared at their skinny soccer-playing middle-schooler every night at the dinner table, and knew he wasn’t eating enough—or more likely—all the wrong stuff, despite a well-packed lunch from home and the other two meals on the home-front. Surely, something was going on that they didn’t know about.
In many American homes, there is a need to quantify food intake, to make sure enough of the right stuff is eaten, and to question every morsel consumed if growth (read: body weight) isn’t perfect.
All these scenarios (and many more) tie into one big issue for families today: a lack of trust in their child’s eating ability.
What is trust?
Trust is the firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability or strength of someone or something. When applied to eating, it means that parents trust the ability of their child to eat just the right amounts–for nutrition, growth and satisfaction.
This means that parents trust their child to understand his appetite, including when to eat, how much to eat, and when to stop eating, when food is provided on a regular basis.
Is Trust Missing at the Family Table?
While many parents think they trust their child in the eating department, research gives us a different picture:
A 2007 study in Appetite showed that 85% of parents try to get their children to eat more at mealtime using praise, rewarding and reminding.
A 2013 study in Pediatrics revealed that 50-60% of parents ask their middle-schoolers and high-schoolers to clean their plates. Forty percent of parents asked them to eat more even when they stated they were full.
And my experience tells me that if your child has challenges with her weight, trust in her eating is even harder.
Trust and too much control cannot co-exist
The natural reaction for parents is to control their child’s eating, especially when a child’s weight is of concern or the child won’t eat. Subtle encouragements to eat more or overt consequences when not enough food or too much food is eaten can complicate the matter.
When parents become too controlling, kids may act out. We see this in other parenting realms when parents become too controlling: the teen who isn’t allowed to go to a party and sneaks out when his parents are in bed.
Or, the child who isn’t allowed to eat sweets at home, and is preoccupied with them at a friend’s home. Or the teen who simply decides to stop eating or binge in secret as a measure of her own control over her life.
The right kind of control in feeding is when parents are in charge of the food menu, the grocery list, the timing of meals and where the family eats with an overall goal of setting the child up for successful eating.
Many parents believe that if they don’t make a child eat a certain amount, he will be starving and will behave terribly, presumably because he is hungry. But, if you let your child make the mistake of eating too little, then he experiences a natural consequence: hunger.
This is a teachable moment and a time when you can reinforce the family meal schedule. You can say, for example:
“I’m sorry you decided not to eat your dinner. The kitchen is closed now. We will have breakfast in the morning and we’ll make sure your belly is happy.”
If you fear your child is overeating, you may be doing something (obvious or under the radar) to minimize his eating or show concern about it.
If you are restricting your child’s access to food, or are strict about the types of food allowed, be aware that this may lead to more eating, especially when unsupervised.
Interestingly, children who are trusted to regulate their eating tend to develop positive self-esteem, learn responsibility and self- care skills, appreciate their bodies, and have a healthy relationship with food.
Don’t Be Afraid to Parent Food
The food supply in today’s world is quite tasty, and not always nutritious. Even the most trusting parents can become frustrated by the constant barrage of eating opportunities and unhealthy fare presented to children. Even I get frustrated by this.
But here’s where I think some parents get tripped up: they are too quiet.
Yes, some parents are afraid to speak up, to set limits and ultimately, may be governed by fear of hurting their child in some unforeseen way. Yes, food is abundant and not always optimal for your child’s health.
That’s why it’s so important to take the helm and guide your child in nurturing and positive ways.
Don’t be afraid to speak up and take a stand with boundaries for your children. Be the boss about meal time, where the family is eating, and what’s on the menu.
Don’t be afraid to say,
“That’s not on the menu today,” or “We’ve had our fun food for the day, we can plan that for tomorrow if you like.”
This is not being too controlling, this is taking the lead and being in charge, in a good way.
When we allow children to self-regulate their appetite, we allow a trusting foundation for eating well in the future.
If we focus too much on managing our children to eat this, avoid that or finish the plate, we teach our children that we don’t trust their eating ability, and ultimately they may not learn to trust themselves.
How are you doing with trusting your child’s eating?
Need More Help?
Check out The Nourished Child Project, a self-education program to help parents learn more about the food system, feeding strategies and lifestyle habits that help grow healthy kids.