You’d never want to deny your “starving” child food, but what do you do when you suspect her food needs aren’t related to hunger?
At the tender age of 4, my daughter could already give Anthony Bourdain a run for his money. She’ll try any food, anywhere we go, from squid cooked in chili paste and basil leaves to roasted brussels sprouts and escarole with sardine shavings. Tasty food — whether exotic or a handful of chocolate Teddy Grahams — extracts from the bottom of her soul the most adorable appreciative moans. She’s the kind of kid who makes a mom feel really good about taking that extra 10 minutes to boil red wine vinegar and apple juice to create an apple jus chicken gravy. She’s the sort of child who will one day grow up and post perfect Pinterest recipes that make moms like me want to give up and order in every night.
But there’s a downside to having a foodie kid. My daughter claims she’s always hungry because, in her mind, being hungry is the same thing as being in love with and fascinated by food. As her primary caretaker and the sole person responsible for cooking for her and supervising her eating plan, I’m pretty darn sure the same person who just consumed half of a roasted chicken, vegetables, and rice couldn’t possibly be starving to death five minutes later.
On the other hand, I was raised in a family where food was treated like top secret nuclear torpedo plans. You weren’t allowed to touch snacks in between meals and those mindful meals that you were served looked as if they were prepared in a lab. Each plate featured a plentiful portion of something green, a sliver of orange, a spot of brown, and my mother practically did a back flip when she figured out a way to include something blue in there, as well.
Our meals were healthy and painstakingly thought out, but one of the messages about food that I picked up from my childhood is that it isn’t a whole lot of fun or pleasurable. Trying to cook all of the right things is more stressful than a day at work. Attempting to ignore hunger cues that surface at 4:30 p.m. because snacks will spoil your appetite for dinner is torture for a child. And, with so much negativity already ingrained in us about food, our weight and our bodies, it isn’t always easy to know whether you’re giving your children too much food and setting them up for disaster or screwing with their heads by depriving them of food. This becomes 100 times more challenging when your own relationship with food is disordered.
One of the least beneficial things you can do with children when it comes to food and weight issues, according to Dr. Danelle Fisher, MD, vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, is to treat it like it’s a conversation only worth having with other adults. “Discussions with children about what they eat and about exercise are important concepts to learn earlier rather than later,” Fisher says. “Since there is a social aspect to eating it is also important for children to learn these relationships early. There must be a careful balance struck between having a certain amount of ‘junk food’ or bad for you food and healthy food because this is a concept that occurs weekly or even daily at certain times in childhood and teenage years.”
Fisher says that, rather than thinking you’re restricting your growing child’s appetite and setting them up to have a hostile relationship with food, she encourages parents to find out about true hunger cues versus desire to continue eating because the food tastes good or they’re bored and want to nibble on something.
“The child who claims they are starving should also have some water to drink at each meal which can help diminish the desire to eat as much,” Fisher says. “Finally, offering healthy snacks between meals can help decrease the amount of food the child may take at a meal and this should always be a discussion with parent and child.”
Fisher’s advice about including small children in a daily dialogue about food choices felt strange to me at first because, as I mentioned, I was raised with the belief that food was an adult’s domain and kids shouldn’t feel burdened to think about what they were consuming. But, as I’m learning, even a 4-year-old is able to surprise you with how much they can pick up about healthy choices versus unhealthy ones. Instead of saying “no, you’ve had enough” when my little one asks for more food two seconds after inhaling a big dinner, I tell her to give her tummy 10 minutes to find out if it’s still hungry and, if she still is, I’ll give her a fruit or something small. Most of the time it takes all of five minutes for her to forget about food and begin playing — a sign that her eyes were bigger than her stomach in that moment.
She also loves knowing that she has a hand in picking out her snacks — and it’s easier for her to do so when I set up an area in our fridge or cupboard loaded with healthy options. She may whine at first at the thought of having a banana — until I offer to make “banana men” using chocolate chips for eyes and a nose. That’s all it sometimes takes for a banana to become an amazing treat.
So many of us struggle with our own food demons and poor attitudes about food, but we can take simple steps to ensure our healthy, food-loving children grow up with positive feelings about what they consume.