Last weekend, we spent some time with my two best friends and their toddlers. It was a really fun weekend away and I love that our daughters had the chance to get to play together. One thing that I couldn’t help but notice was how different the girls appetites were, especially the two that are closer in age. Both are healthy, both are energetic, yet their eating styles were pretty different. Among the three girls, mine had the biggest appetite and to be completely honest, it made me a little nervous and self conscious. Was she eating too much? And: Had I done something wrong?
A few days later we were back home and out to dinner with my husband. The waitress commented more than once about how L was a “good eater” because of how enthusiastically she was eating her edamame and shrimp. The girl loves Japanese food!
The next day, after a morning at a waterpark, L didn’t eat anything for dinner. She was suddenly really, really sick and hardly ate a thing for the next four days. I’m talking 1/2 a slice of bread and five Cheerios for an entire day. Did that make her a “bad” eater?
In just under a week, I went from having the kid with the biggest appetite to a kid who was hardly eating. I was offering all of her favorite foods and still, no dice. And sure, sickness was at play, but the huge swing really made me think about my own relationship with my daughter’s appetite. Why was I so preoccupied by it? To help my thought process, I consulted feeding expert Ellyn Slatter. Look at what I found (emphasis is mine):
The average toddler eats from 960 to 1700 calories a day. Add on to that a normal 20% over and under day-to-day variation, and that child will eat between 760 to 2040 calories a day. Children of other ages show the same variation. If you are restricting how much your child eats or pressuring her to eat, her day-to-day variation will be even greater. Your child will eat less or more depending on who has the upper hand.
I was considered chubby as a kid and it definitely influenced how food was handled in my house. It look me a long (loooong) time to overcome the feelings of shame and guilt I learned from a young age to associate with food and I am pretty terrified of causing that cycle to start in my daughter.
But here’s what I know:
- Toddler appetites are so varied and variable that it’s pretty preposterous to try to define when a little one is eating enough—or too much. It’s simply impossible to objectively decide what’s the right amount.
- Kids instinctively know how much to eat, even when they are sick. (We adults do too, but I think that it’s all wrapped up in emotions and our personal histories with food so it’s harder for us to tell…) They might need to be reminded that there’s a drink nearby, or that it’s snack time, but when my girl was dealing with a high spiking fever, she drank way more liquids than she normally does. Her body was using its resources to fight off the virus and needed the liquids more than solid foods.
- Whether or not we view how much they are eating as too little, too much, or just enough is likely wrapped up in how we ourselves feel about food on any given day. Are we comfortable with our own intake? Are we able to listen to our hunger and satiety cues? Do we feel comfortable in our bodies? Do we trust ourselves?
- If we push them to eat more (or less) than they naturally want to, they won’t know how to trust their own hunger cues and signals. I know that when my food was restricted as a kid, I rebelled by hiding food, eating in secret, and lying about what I was eating. No one wants that!
- By surrounding our kids with healthful food most of the time, and letting them decide what and how much to eat, we give them the chance to learn the skills of self regulation. These are the same skills that we adults often have to dig deep to find if we weren’t given the opportunity to practice them when we were kids.
The more we talk about food negatively—whether calling something “bad”, talking about how something we eat will make us fat, or how we aren’t eating one thing or another for whatever reason/detox/diet we happen to be on—the more our kids will grow up learning that food makes us feel badly about ourselves. Or that it makes us question our value as a person. And that it can totally define our moods during the course of a day.
I didn’t fully realize how much my perception of whether or not my daughter was eating enough—or too much—was tied to how I felt about myself and my own history with food until this past week. And now that I do, I’m trying really hard to step back and look at the big picture. If my goal is to raise a healthy eater who trusts (and loves) her body for all of the amazing things it can do for her, then it is my job to teach her to use food to help her achieve that. I’m pretty good about letting her eat what she needs to, not pressuring her to eat something she doesn’t want, and trusting her to adjust her intake according to her needs on any particular day. But I’m really going to try to stop all of the commentary that’s been running through my head about it all every day.
Because if we don’t trust our toddlers to eat the right amount for their bodies, they never will.
*If you are truly worried about your toddler’s eating or intake of fluids, please consult your pediatrician.