© 2012 Roy Benaroch, MD
As we’ve seen, the problem isn’t the picky eating, per se. Kids are getting enough calories, and they’re certainly growing big enough. Even the skinniest kids in today’s world are far healthier and have far better nutrition than most of the kids from previous generations. And I certainly haven’t seen health problems in the slender kids in my practice. What I see very commonly, though, are health problems from overweight: diabetes, high blood pressure, depression, and social isolation.
So, no matter what else, the first principle of healthy family eating should be to help foster a child’s own normal sense of appetite and hunger. This is The Rule of mealtimes. It’s The Truth, and The One Ring to rule them all:
- If you’re hungry, eat.
- If you’re not hungry, don’t eat.
(OK, so it’s two rules. Close enough.)
Humans have a built-in mechanism to control food intake, and it works well at every age. It’s called “hunger.” Often, though, we unintentionally raise our kids in ways that teach them to ignore their appetite cues and eat for all sorts of other reasons.
Think about it. In American culture we don’t just eat when we’re hungry. We eat to celebrate. We eat when we watch a movie, we eat when we’re on the phone. We eat when we’re upset, and we eat when we’re bored. We eat when we’re happy and we eat when we’re sad. Often, we eat because others encourage us to eat. Family and friends ply us with food, and mom loads up our plate. We also have to contend with an ever-present marketing effort to get us to eat even more. Most two-year-olds already recognize “The Golden Arches”, and TV and computer banner ads are a near-constant barrage encouraging us to eat. And eat. And eat.
In a way, I’m surprised obesity isn’t more common.
Let’s not make matters worse. From a very early age, encourage your children to manage their own appetite. This means that a nine-month-old who becomes less interested in nursing should be allowed to wean. And a two-year-old who wants to explore instead of cleaning his plate should be allowed to leave the table. When a child doesn’t have an appetite to eat more, do not try to trick or fool or guilt or otherwise “get him” to continue eating. Lacking hunger means the child has eaten enough. Meals shouldn’t end when mom or dad thinks Junior has had enough; meals should end when Junior thinks he’s had enough.
In fact, from The Rule flows two other rules which guide the roles of children and parents at mealtimes:
- Parents should offer healthful foods in an appropriate manner.
- Children decide which foods to eat, and how much to eat.
Simple! Or at least simple to say, and simple to understand. That doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always easy to do!
Next up: more about the job that parents and kids have at mealtimes.
The picky eater guide: The whole enchilada: