I don't know about anybody reading this, but when I was growing up, the big thing that my parents always said was that you wanted to try and finish all the food on your plate at any meal. My mom made a game out of it, and called it the Clean Plate Club. It was a celebration if I ate everything on my plate. In my house it was not something that was strictly enforced, but rather something to be attempted at every meal and celebrated when it was achieved. This helped me have a positive association with eating everything on my plate (and not thinking twice about having seconds!).
But I know in other homes, it would be typical to take it to a bit of a different level, where children are told they have to sit at the dinner table until they eat everything on their plate. This method doesn’t necessarily create a positive association, but it does effectively make the children grow up into adults who feel a sense of guilt for not eating all the food they’ve ordered or made at home.
Okay, so what’s my point here? Well, BOTH situations are examples of us teaching our children to ignore their hunger and satiety cues in favor of not wasting food. This could result in a lifetime of slight overeating that will add up to unwanted weight gain at some point in their lives.
So, I want to talk about this concept for parents, because I believe it is really up to the parents to make important dietary decisions for their children in the early years (say, the first 10 or so). Up to a certain point, parents are the ones that introduce different types of foods to their children. If you introduce them early on to a lot of processed foods, that are quite frankly delicious, then it's pretty tough to dig yourself out of that hole to get them to eat vegetables and other unprocessed foods.
How parents talk about and influence the eating of their children is very important.
Another thing to keep in mind is that children are born really knowing exactly how much they should eat on any given day. This is why their appetites can fluctuate pretty dramatically day to day and is impacted by several factors such as their activity level, if they are getting sick, or if they are about to grow. The activity level of the day before can affect the appetite of the next day, with a high activity day prior making the kids want to eat more, and the kids wanting to eat less after a low activity day. As parents, we need to be mindful of what factors could be driving appetite and be attentive to what they need (or don’t).
Of course as any seasoned parent knows, at the dinner table, there’s a balance that needs to be struck between appetite fluctuations and just pickiness. I know my kids are extremely picky, so what may look like a lack of appetite may just be them being picky. The key is to keep up the positive association with eating, but also with respecting their actual appetites that day. Avoid forcing them to continue eating when they are not and definitely avoid any kind of shaming or guilt if your child is wanting more food - they’re growing! It’s something to celebrate!
Many times at the dinner table there is a little bit of negotiation that has to go on as well. I know a lot of parents out there know what I am talking about. If we have something really delicious with our meal, like applesauce for my kids, that’s all they will want to eat and will ask for more apple sauce. You have to be careful in those situations. While applesauce is a fine choice, I want them to eat some of their salad or some of the hamburger, too. So we say “Okay, but first you need to take two bites of the other things on your plate. If you do that, and you're still hungry, then yes, you can have some more applesauce.” This way they'll get through some of the other food. The point is that we aren’t sitting there making them eat everything on their plate, we are noticing that they are still hungry and trying to get them to eat a little more balanced. That's where I try to be flexible and help them understand that they don’t have to have it all, but they do have to try everything.
I would just suggest thinking about how your family talks about eating at the dinner table, and just investigate that a bit. I think many people eat with the idea that food is expensive, we don’t want to waste it! They also think: “I have a little bit more room before I’m stuffed, I can finish that.” And I agree, the last thing we want to do is be wasting food. But, this approach leads to excess calories being eaten, that many people don’t intend to eat or need.
We never want to waste food, so just be willing to pack up the leftovers for another day and consider putting smaller portions on your child’s plates. How eating is approached from childhood can really influence how a person eats when they are adults. The goal is for a positive association between food, but with respect to hunger and satiety cues. This will build children into adults who are better prepared for navigating our world of delicious, but nutritionally devoid convenience foods.