“You don’t want to feed me!” Caleb* accused his mom, noticing that his thinner sister was allowed to have snacks when he wasn’t. With a chubby body and a hearty appetite since toddlerhood, he was often prevented from eating as much as he wanted. His parents thought they were doing the right thing given that his pediatrician had brought up his accelerating weight on many occasions. But none of this stopped him from gaining weight, being obsessed with eating or constantly begging for food.
Healthy kids come in all sizes. But with all the media and healthcare focus on preventing ‘childhood obesity,’ as well as the constant diet talk in our society, if your child has a big appetite, and/or a big body, you might feel afraid of his eating. What if he gets fatter? What if he’ll never be able to manage his eating? What if his appetite has no ‘off’ switch? Out of fear, parents often resort to portion-restriction and control-based feeding. However, instead of helping children slim down, feeding in a controlling way usually makes kids more obsessed with food, more likely to overeat, and more likely to grow into larger bodies than nature intended.
Troubleshooting When Your Child’s Appetite Seems Out-of-Control
Kids can’t develop balanced eating habits or a healthy relationship to food when they are restricted with food, given only ‘healthy’ low-calorie options, and repeatedly given the unintended message that they are untrustworthy around food. If your child seems to want to eat constantly and/or can’t seem to ever get full when she does eat, here are some areas you might want to address:
1. Meals & Snacks at Random Times All Day — When meals are unpredictable a child can feel insecure about whether or not he will be fed. Feeling insecure about getting fed makes a child more likely to overeat when she finally gets the chance to eat–after all, who knows when she’ll get to do it again? On the other hand, allowing a child to graze on food all day can teach her to eat for emotional reasons. Tired, sad, bored? Grab a snack! This habit can start as early as toddlerhood and is a tough one for people to break on their own.
The antidote to non-stop munching and feelings of food deprivation is structured meals and snacks. You must decide on reasonable eating times and stay firm about not allowing nibbling or drinking (except for water) in between. Take the lead by being the one to set out the food and help your child transition from whatever he’s doing to come to the table–don’t offer food in response to begging, to settle bad behavior, or soothe a teary eye. If your child is used to being fed on demand or shows signs of food obsession, I recommend you serve food every 2-3 hours, initially, to re-establish his trust that he will be fed.
2. Eating While Playing or Watching TV — Kids who regularly eat while watching TV tend to eat in a mindless fashion–out of tune with their stomach’s signals. Same for kids who run around and play while eating. Their mind is elsewhere and eating is just a side-activity. The solution is to confine eating to the table. Or to a picnic blanket or bench–you get the idea: seated and not multi-tasking. Allow your child to focus on the task of eating, so when he’s finished he can forget about food until the next meal or snack.
3. Everyone Eats Separately — Physical and emotional health are strengthened when families eat together. And it’s more than just about the food. So don’t worry too much about having a perfectly nutritious and balanced, gourmet, organic, preservative-free meal<–that concern is often one of the biggest obstacles to the family meal. If the effort to get the food just right turns out to be too much, you may not even try and if you do you won’t last long. Yes, your kids are far more likely to learn to like nutritious foods if you serve them at family meals, but even take-out is a good meal if you share it as a family.
4. You Micromanage Your Child’s Plate — If you dish up your child’s portion, give the stink-eye when he reaches for seconds, push him to eat more veggies, or negotiate every bite, STOP. It does not work. Prepare enough food that everyone can get their fill. Don’t run out of something on purpose merely to control any one person’s portion. Trust your child to eat as much as she needs. In fact, let her serve herself–choosing or skipping what she will from the options on the table. Your job is to provide the eating times, the delicious food selection and a pleasant atmosphere. That’s it. It’s your child’s job (no matter his weight) is to decide whether and how much to eat.
The most critical aspect of feeding your child is not keeping him slim & trim, but supporting normal growth and development. It’s scary at first. It takes a lot of trust. Trust that your child is capable of self-regulation (he is!) if adequately supported. Quite often kids who have been restricted will start to eat more to make up for lost time. But by biting your tongue about portions and allowing your child to feel a sense of control about what he puts on his plate and how much he eats, he will start to relax and learn to respond to his feelings of fullness.
5. Too Many Foods are Off Limits — Allergies aside, is there a long list of “forbidden” foods in your home? Every family has its own unique set of values when it comes to food. Perhaps food dyes, fried foods, or sugary treats are no-no’s in your household. Perhaps you always skimp on serving higher calorie foods to your larger child. Research shows that “off-limits” foods become more alluring to kids and kids tend to overeat those foods when they get the chance (birthday parties, friend’s houses, etc). Help your child manage treats and ‘junk food’ by occasionally serving it in satisfying amounts. The occasional full plate of cookies at set out on the table at snack time can offset the wise limit of one dessert per person with meals. A bowl of chips with lunch, now and then, will reduce their overall allure.
How Did Caleb Do?
Two weeks after mom implemented structured meal times and lifted the portion control, Caleb’s eating changed! Because he began to feel like he could get his fill, he calmed down measurably around food, mealtimes were much more pleasant for everyone, and he even stopped taking the usual extra portions–even though he was allowed to. Mom will need continued support to ensure she doesn’t fall back on old ways and has the tools to respond to new challenges, but Caleb is off to a great start!
You May Need Support
I can’t guarantee that addressing the troubleshooting points above will make you feel better or change your child’s weight. After all, the point of addressing feeding issues is to make changes that support normal growth and development, to help your child do well with eating and develop/maintain a healthy relationship with food. It is not to slim your child down. That’s what diets are for and diets present more problems than they fix, so I don’t recommend any diet for children. If you struggle with your child’s eating, work with a dietitian who is knowledgeable in feeding dynamics and Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility. Feel free to contact me if you need help finding one near you. I’m not doing long distance consults at this time, but do know of professionals who offer this service.
Books that may help you in the process:
— “Your Child’s Weight: Helping without Harming” by Ellyn Satter, M.S., R.D., L.C.S.W
— “Love Me, Feed Me: The Adoptive Parent’s Guide to Ending the Worry about Weight, Picky Eating, Power Struggles and More.” by Katja Rowell, M.D. (helpful even if your child is not adopted).
*This was a real quote from one of my pediatric patients as reported by this child’s mother. Name and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.