Food pause: Let your child decide when they've eaten enough

Aoife Hearne with her youngest child, Zoë. ‘I’m constantly amazed by how much food my three can eat when they are going through growth spurts,’ she says. Picture: Patrick Browne

If your children say they’ve eaten enough accept them at their word and don’t try and force more on them, advises dietitian Aoife Hearne

Article in partnership with Pip & Pear

I’VE had a better week. As promised, I decided to take my own advice and went a little easier on myself. By doing so I realised how much pressure I was putting myself under to achieve this routine that, really, Zoë wasn’t ready for.

In the meantime, I was losing all enjoyment of my little bundle who seems to grow every minute of the day! I still paid attention to her cues for when she needed to sleep, but I dropped all expectation that she could fall asleep on her own. What a relief it was.

Let’s look at what I believe is important for parents to focus on to create healthy habits for the family.

When it comes to healthy eating for children, I believe there has been far too much focus on so-called ‘healthy foods’ and not enough focus on the habits and behaviours when it comes to feeding our children.

While it seems simplistic to label foods good and bad, the reality is that this can be seen as a starting point for a poor relationship with food. All foods are healthy and the sooner we all come around to that viewpoint the better.

As your baby heads towards the one-year milestone, they should be more established on solid foods. Of course, breastmilk is recommended until two years of age and beyond but, if you wish, you can introduce full-fat cow’s milk in small amounts (up to 200ml added to foods) from six months that can be consumed in greater quantities from one year.

At this point, regardless of how you introduced solids, your baby should be eating family meals and drinking from a cup rather than a bottle. Learner cups and Doidy cups are great places to start. And it’s around now that you really need to think about the healthy habits you want for your baby and your family.

We want babies and young children to stay connected to the innate ability to recognise hunger and fullness. However, as babies grow they are all too often forced to bypass their full signal to ensure they are eating what we/adults/parents believe is enough.

In the evening time, this is often associated with sleeping and the fear they will wake up hungry in the middle of the night.

I get it, believe me, I do, but you have to play the long game with children. If we continue to push them past that full feeling, the risk is that as adults they will not be able to self-regulate and thus increases the risk of being overweight.

As hard as it can be sometimes if children say they are full, we need to accept it. Games such as pretending spoons of food are planes or phrases like ‘just one more bite’ or ‘if you finish your dinner you will get something nice’ need to stop. If they say they don’t want any more food, just accept it and move on.

Ellyn Satter is an internationally recognised authority when it comes to eating and feeding children. She coined the phrase ‘division of responsibility’ when it comes to feeding children. It’s a philosophy I try to live by.

According to Satter, the what, when, and where of eating is up to the parent. How much is eaten, if anything at all, is up to the child. Simply put, it is not your responsibility as a parent to ensure your toddler eats. Your job is to provide healthy, nourishing food in a structured way and in a suitable environment. When I discuss this topic at seminars, often parents are concerned their child will be hungry.

It’s a valid concern, but in reality, we know children will not leave themselves go hungry for a prolonged amount of time. That is unless, of course, they know you will eventually cave in and give them what they really want later in the evening. Yes, they may go to bed hungry one or two nights, but in general, they won’t continue down this path.

Taking this approach may not always be easy initially. It can be especially difficult on days when you come home from a long day and all you want is for everyone to eat their dinner and go to bed and sleep, but it pays off in dividends as they get older. Children will understand you are not a short- order cook and will accept the one-family, one-meal approach that I really believe is important.

These habits and behaviours around food are so important for a healthy, lasting relationship with food. Giving children (and adults) an unconditional permission to eat all foods, with no foods labelled as forbidden, changes everything. Of course we want children to eat healthy foods; by providing meals and snacks at structured times each day, they will continue to eat for physical rather than emotional reasons. This will strengthen their trust of internal cues of hunger to guide their eating as they grow.

In my experience, following the division of responsibility when it comes to feeding the kids really takes the pressure off. I do my job of providing healthy foods at regular times and the rest is up to the kids. I’m constantly amazed by how much food my three can eat when they are going through growth spurts and how little is enough for them at other times. It can be really challenging at times but both my husband and I try our very best to stick to our guns most of the time.

None of us is perfect and, of course, there will always be times when you have to be flexible with your approach, but if you’re getting it right 80% of the time I think that’s good enough.

This series has kindly been supported by Pip & Pear but the content has not been in anyway influenced by them.

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