by Neil Amas, Panyaden International School Director
As parents we all want our children to develop good eating habits, to be healthy, eat greens and avoid junk food. No one wants a fussy eater. Why, then, do so many of us have kids that won’t eat vegetables, who don’t seem to be eating enough, who skip school lunch, who only seem to want ice cream or French fries? Or, more to the point, what can we do about it? As a parent, I know that I wish so much that my daughters will eat the right things, and, more pertinently, will want to eat the right things. But I can hear myself nagging them daily, ‘you really need to eat more than that before you go to school’, ‘can you please choose something more healthy from the menu than a plate of chips’, etcetera, etcetera!
One thing that is clear from experts on diet and parenting is that parental attitudes towards eating are key to children developing good habits. If we see every mealtime as a battle, so will our child. If we pile the pressure on our kid to eat this or avoid that, we will not only increase her anxiety around food, she will probably end up doing the exact opposite of what we want. What are you most likely to want to eat if you are forbidden from eating chocolate brownies? Chocolate brownies, of course!
At school it is quite common for children, especially those who are new to the country or who don’t eat Thai food at home, to take some time to get used to school lunch. But experts warn that the worst thing you can do when you pick up your hungry child is to ask him if he ate his lunch. “Show him that you aren’t worried or thinking about what or how much he is eating at lunch. DON’T ask him what he ate. I see parents do this all the time. Pretend it doesn’t matter. Give him the message that he can manage his eating, even if he is still learning right now.”i
He may eat little at lunch, but with an adequate offering at breakfast, a planned snack after school and a good dinner, he will probably be just fine. It’s worth remembering that meals at school account for less than a quarter of a child’s weekly intake.
Children have a natural ability with eating. They eat as much as they need, they grow in the way that is right for them, and they learn to eat the food their parents eat (important note: this goes for both healthy and junk food!). Ellyn Satter’s no-nonsense guide to parents on who does what at mealtime, makes the case clearly:
|The Division of Responsibility for toddlers through adolescents
Fundamental to parents’ jobs is trusting children to determine how much and whether to eat from what parents provide. When parents do their jobs with feeding, children do their jobs with eating:
Parents’ feeding jobs:
Children’s eating jobs:
In short, don’t force your child to eat (it lessens their ability to self-regulate), don’t over-control and restrict the types of food your child eats or how much (research shows this actually increases fussinessii), model healthy eating habits yourself (enjoy mealtimes together so your kids can learn good habits from you) and never offer food as a reward or use unhealthy food as part of a celebration (associating junk food with achievement gives the wrong message).
One of the school’s Wise Habits, Mattannuta, means knowing the right amount. Whether eating, sleeping, studying, playing, using the computer or talking, the ability to find optimal balance through self-regulation is a skill which will lead to maturity and social responsibility. With modelling, skill and trust, we will help our children see that true value of food relates to health, not preference.
i Jenny McGlothlin and Katja Rowell, www.extremepickyeating.com
ii S Scaglioni et al, Influence of parental attitudes in the development of children eating behavior. British Journal of Nutrition, 2008. 99(1):S22-25 cited in Fostering Healthy Eating Habits in Children: the Effect of Parenting Attitudes by Gemma Buller
- S Scaglioni et al, ibid.
- Helping your Child to Build Good Eating Habits by Pediatric Clinical Dietitians, Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia
- Ellyn Satter, Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family; Division of Responsibility in Feeding