With dietary behaviour in childhood often setting up our adult food attitudes, helping our kids develop a love of wholesome food in sensible portions is one of the best gifts we can give them.
Many parents can attest that hungry kids tend to be cranky kids, so we’re often keen to keep the snacks coming to ward off irrational sobs and give them the energy they need to grow and get through their days.
But with experts believing that losing touch with feelings of hunger plays a key role in overeating and subsequent rising rates of weight gain and obesity in our society, it makes sense to try help our kids keep in touch with their body’s hunger signals from a young age so they can continue to adequately fuel themselves.
Here’s how health experts suggest you do just that.
Let them take the lead
Many adults report having not felt true physical hunger in years.
If you want to help your kids continue to be able to identify when they are truly hungry, then try not to make food “deals” with them, such as, “No dessert if you don’t eat your veggies” or “Just two more bites”.
“The problem is that when parents pressure children to eat more food than they want, kids learn to ignore their internal cues of hunger and fullness,” Dr Dina Rose, author of It’s Not About the Brocolli: Three Habits To Teach Your Kids for a Lifetime of Healthy Eating, writes on Psychology Today.
“Talk to your children about hunger and fullness, under-eating and overeating, and how these body states feel.”
Offer lots of healthy foods
As much as your kids might beg for ice-cream for breakfast, experts say that adults need to remain firm in offering a range of healthy foods at meal and snack times.
Dr Rose suggests making set meal and snack times so that kids know when food is coming, and Raising Children advise simply not buying unhealthy foods because if wholesome options are all that’s available, then that’s what your kids will fill up on.
“You could have a bowl of fresh fruit on the bench and a container of vegie sticks in the fridge,” Raising Children suggest.
If you’ve got a fussy eater on your hands, the Dietitian’s Association of Australia recommends encouraging your kids to at least try each food on their plate, even if they don’t eat it all.
“If they don’t like it, don’t give up – it can take up to 10 tries before a child accepts a new food,” they write.
“It may help to serve new foods with at least one food you know they like.”
Know that their appetites fluctuates
Some days your kids will be ravenous, other days they’ll graze on small amounts, so parents need to go with the flow to a certain extent.
“Being forced to ‘clear the plate’ by parents can lead youngsters to lose their ability to follow their own appetite and hunger cues, promoting overeating in later years,” Alex Johnstone, the University of Aberdeen’s Personal Chair in Nutrition, writes on The Conversation.
If they don’t finish their meal it can be tempting to offer them something else to give you peace-of-mind that they’ve had their fill, but Raising Children advise that’s not necessary.
“If your child doesn’t eat part of the meal – for example, the vegies – this is her choice,” they write.
“It isn’t a good idea to offer extra serves of other food – for example, meat – to make up for missing vegies. Your child might just have a small appetite at the moment.”