As parents, we all spend a lot of time thinking about what our kids are eating. Are they eating enough? Too much? How can we know? I'm a big believer in teaching our kids to trust their bodies through how we feed them—but the words we use are really important too.
Lately, I've been thinking a lot about how I talk to my daughter at the table in terms of feeling full. I've been doing the same thing, more or less, since she started eating, before she could totally understand what I was saying, because I want to help her connect the dots with how her body feels and what she's eating. That, for so many women, is something they don't learn to later on and I really am hoping to help her avoid the struggles with body image and disordered eating that I had through my teens and twenties.
Here are a few pointers if this is something you want to start doing with your kids.
- Let them determine their hunger and fullness. As I am sure you know, there are days when your toddler will eat and eat, and then there are others where he will just pick. That's normal! Because of that, I strongly believe that we need to let our kids determine their own hunger, eating when they are hungry and stopping when they are full. Most kids intuitively know how to do that, so when we tell them they've had enough because we think they have, we're teaching them not to trust themselves.
The big kicker here is that in order to do this, the food they are served most of the time should be healthy and balanced. For more on this, check out this post on How to Stop Obsessing About Your Toddler's Appetite.
- Teach them words to describe how their body feels. We use "full" and "fullness" most often because they are not negative, but are very clear in terms what they mean. So I say, "Does your belly feel full? Do you feel like you have any more room for food?" I try not to tell her when she's had enough because only she knows how her body feels so I want her to be able to make that choice for herself. I didn't expect her to fully understand this right away, and I'm still not sure if she really gets it, but laying the groundwork seems like a good plan.
- Take breaks. If my daughter asks for seconds (or thirds) of something, I often ask her to take a little break to help her see if she still feels hungry. We wipe her hands, clean her face, take a drink, look at something out the window, and then talk about how her belly feels. I try to explain in very simple terms about how it can take time for the food we put into our mouths to reach our bellies, so we need to give it a few minutes to see if we're ready to be done or not. I do not make her feel guilty for asking for more food, nor do I tell her she can't have more. We simply give it a few minutes. 99% of the time, she forgets that she asked for more food and is ready to get up from the table.
- Remind that there will always be enough food. One thing that has started happening more recently is that I get the sense that my daughter wants to eat more because she thinks that a certain food is going away. This has happened with two foods she loves, meatballs and black bean soup. In both instances, she was loving her meal so much that she just wanted to keep eating. So we took a break and talked about how there would be more tomorrow if she wanted it—she could even have it for breakfast if she wanted to! (She did, both times:) This seems to help reassure her that this most delicious food is not a one-time deal so there's no need to stock up.
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How to Stop Obsessing About Your Toddler's Appetite