Are You Raising a "Good" Eater?

Filed under: Nutrition: Health, Mealtime

As long as there have been mothers, children have been admonished: "Clean your plate!" Parents will go to great lengths to command, cajole or trick their picky kids into consuming the broccoli or beets left cold and uneaten. Doubtless, it's done with the best of intentions -- We want our children to get the nutrition they need through healthful foods. But according to author and M.D. Michelle May, forcing a child to finish their dinner may be encouraging harmful habits that could lead to overeating, obesity or eating disorders later in life.

Dr. May is a "recovered yo-yo dieter" and author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat: How to Break Your Eat-Repent-Repeat Cycle. She says that parents' insistence on making a child clean their plate when they don't want to could be training children to ignore the inner hunger cues that tell them when they have had enough.

During annual checkups with famillies, Dr. May says she's heard many frustrated parents complain, "My child's just not a good eater!" about kids who are picky or eat only a small amount of food at a time. But she says that the idea of the "good eater" is an outdated concept that has got to go. It was an important message for a time when food was scarce, but now in our abundant food culture, it's a message that completely backfires.

"Children are born with the instinctive ability to eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full," says May. "Babies, from the moment they are born, intuitively know when they need to be fed and they will stop when they've had enough. And if we, as parents, override that process by forcing children to clean their plates, bribing them, or even entertaining them to get them to eat more food than they actually need, we're slowly undoing their ability to say, enough is enough."

With so much media coverage of North America's growing childhood obesity problem and fears about children not getting enough nutrition, parents often feel the pressure to get their kids to eat the good stuff and not the bad, and that translates into dinner table battles. Dr. May says that these battles can be not only unpleasant, but detrimental to a child's attitude towards food. And what about saying, "No dessert if you don't eat your veggies"? Not a good idea.

"It's important to think about the message we send when we do that," says May. "When I say to a child, 'If you don't eat all your dinner, you don't get dessert,' then I'm teaching my child that dinner is the yucky stuff, that the dessert is the reward."

As well, Dr. May points out that when parents say things like, "Sweets are bad, don't eat that, it's bad for you", it can be confusing to children, who naturally have an affinity for sweet foods. They think, "I want the food, the food is bad, so therefore I'm bad." According to May, if a child is told that a certain type of food is forbidden, they will crave that food and eat more of it. They will "cheat," the same way adults do when they are on a diet. It's an attitude towards food that can have a far-reaching negative impact.

"I'm a huge believer of keeping all the foods on the same level. Food is not inherently bad or good, it's all about balance and moderation," says Dr. May.

As an example of how parents might encourage their kids to try new and healthful foods, Dr. May advocates the "two bite rule," a philosophy she used in her own family. Everyone has to take two bites of whatever is served for dinner.

"By making it a family rule, it wasn't a point of discussion," she says. "And I didn't make a fuss about how big the bites were, and I never said, 'See, I told you you would like it.' It was never about winning or power, it was about offering nutritious foods and saying, 'Try it, maybe you'll like it.' If they don't like it, no big deal, there are things we don't like as adults, too."

May says as long as we are giving children a wide variety of healthy foods, we should trust them to know when they've had enough. She also points out that it's normal for kids to be picky, and that studies have shown that an unfamiliar food may have to be offered up to 10 times before a child will adopt it.

"As parents, we have to be persistent but not insistent."

Do you have a picky eater at home? How do you handle battles over food? Feel free to share in the comments below!

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AdviceMama Says:
Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.