For reassurance, you can remember two things. First, a child will always listen to their hunger and satiety cues. Second, an adult must offer food diversity for pleasure, to develop healthy eating habits and to fulfill the nutritional needs of the child but parents have no control over the quantities of food the child consumes!
What has an impact on appetite and hunger?
A preschool child has a fluctuating appetite from one day to another and even from one meal to another. Many factors are involved such as hunger, satiety, physical activity, fatigue, excitement, thirst and, of course, growth. Many children are not interested in eating because of how much they are stimulated by their environment. This is normal… everything is new!
The responsibility of the child: recognize their hunger and satiety cues
To avoid “reacting” and forcing our child to eat, we must trust their capacity to recognize their hunger and satiety cues. From birth, they are “programmed” to recognize them but at a very young age, they can lose this perception. Thus, a parent who forces their child to drink the whole bottle or who tells them to finish their plate opens the door to bad eating habits and to an increased risk of chronic diseases such as obesity, cardiovascular diseases, diabetes, etc.
The responsibilities of the adult: the what, the when and the where!
The concept of shared responsibilities is simple and has been tried and tested for more than 20 years. Elaborated by Ellyn Satter, an American nutritionist and psychotherapist, its objective is to reduce the conflicts related to food and to promote a healthy weight.
- The adult is responsible for the foods served (WHAT), of the time at which they are served (WHEN) and where they are served (WHERE).
- The child, in turn, is responsible for the amount of food (HOW MUCH) they will or will not eat.
The adult should not fear that their child lacks nutrients if they include foods from the four groups in the food guide in all meals and snacks. Even if the child doesn’t eat their broccoli at lunch, they will probably eat their peas at dinner. A nutritional deficiency is more likely to happen to a child who doesn’t eat any food of a food group (like a child who is allergic to all milk and alternatives). In that case, it is best to consult a nutritionist to ensure that the menu offers foods that provide enough energy and nutrients.
Methods of intervention
- Offer a single menu: it is the parent’s responsibility to decide what will be offered, not the child’s!
- Respect your child’s taste: they can eat or not.
- Lead by example: taste and eat with your child.
- Concentrate on the pleasure of being together at the table, not on your child’s plate.
- Ensure that the atmosphere is friendly: no pressure and no blackmail around the table.
- Letting go: keep in mind the role of the adult and the role of the child.
- Provide a variety of fruits and vegetables.
- Offer new foods but include a known ingredient to reassure your child.
- Serve little portions: it is better to refill.
- Form at least one good habit: eating slowly.
- Reinforce good habits without mentioning the amount eaten: “Congratulations, you are good with your fork!”
- Express your personal tastes and promote dialogue with your child… and not only on subjects such as food and good manners!
- Invite children to cook. It is always more interesting to eat something we cooked!
1 Ellyn Satter's website, consulted on May 5, 2011.