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Feeling Hungry and the 'Off' Switch

I’m ashamed to say I have a tendency to be quite authoritarian around food[1]. I want my children to try whatever food is given at a meal; I don’t allow snacks too close to eating time and (…..and this is the problem) I make judgments about whether they’ve eaten enough.

I’ll return to the idea of being an authorative parent as opposed to an authoritarian parent in another blog post. Suffice to say setting routines and guiding your child’s eating is very different to the control that dictates whether they actually eat and how much.

For many years I worked with children who didn’t eat. From young children that were far more interested in playing than eating, all the way to teenagers who had purposefully decided they would eat very very little. There was a lot of encouragement in these two groups around eating, lots of discussions and ultimately, with the teenagers, a concentrated, effortful, single point focus on re-feeding.

But most children are not in an emaciated, unhealthy state. Taking a position of absolute control around eating has the effect of removing children’s ability to learn about their appetite: when they are hungry and when they have had enough. Even if a child could do with eating a bit more, the best way to encourage healthy eating is through a far more well rounded approach.

So I thought that in this blog I’d share a few ideas about how we support children to develop and manage their own appetites.

Relaxation, relaxation, relaxation:

Teaching your child to relax, slow down and become aware of their appetite and feelings of hunger is key. I use a simple relaxation story / game I call ‘Quiet frog[2]’ with children 3 years and older.

The first few times I practice this with children I do so away from the table. This means that they can become familiar with the game before eating. Make sure everyone is sitting down somewhere quiet then tell a story something like this:

  • ‘Can you hear that sound? I think it’s the sound of a frog sitting very quietly. Listen (Pause) Ah, it’s waiting for a fly to come along. Shall we pretend we’re still quiet frogs waiting for a fly to come along?

  • Now do you know that frogs are very good at seeing flies because they are so still? When flies come along frogs are ready to whip out their tongues and catch them really quickly.

  • So they sit so still and all that moves is their tummy, up and down as they breath.

  • Let's practice sitting very still with only our tummies moving quietly up and down as we breathe?

  • Can you feel how it must be to be a frog waiting oh so quietly and still for a fly to pass by?

When you have done this a few times away from the table then start doing it just before a meal. Tell children that their tummies are getting quietly ready for the food they will eat and if they sit like frogs before the meal their tummies will know just what they need to eat.

During the meal:

The reason you want your child to be relaxed and calm and aware of their bodies is so that when they eat they can enjoy the food and pace their intake. The more in tune and aware they are the better.

Things that help to keep children relaxed and aware are:

  • A welcoming, mealtime table

  • Eating together[3] with parents from whom they can model relaxed eating

  • Having the pleasure and enjoyment they get from food acknowledged and appreciated

  • When families keep mealtimes as a privileged time with gentle conversations, swapping of news and small stories. Television, radios and phones are out of the way or off.

Towards the end of a meal:

As children near the end of a meal it can be very helpful to talk to them about the ‘off’ switch. In short this means explaining to children that their tummies take time to realise they have finished eating. Chat with your child about tummies taking time to send a finished message. Let them move away from the table and see whether their tummies send them a more relaxed, finished message after twenty minutes.

So, after my admission about authoritarian parenting, I shall be going away with the intention to take a far more humble, thoughtful and supportive parenting approach towards mealtimes and my children’s ability to manage what they eat. They might not eat as much of the food I’d choose but they will learn how to choose themselves and hopefully, with time, what they enjoy and need.

If you find these ideas interesting and would like to know more then why not contact me for a consultation or sign up for my newsletter.

[1] Research carried out in Canada has linked authoritarian parenting to obesity in children. See Kakinami, Barnett, Seguin and Paradis (2015). Parenting style and obesity risk in children. Prev Med, 75:18-22.

[2] Based on ideas from a book called ‘Mindfulness Exercises for Kids (and their Parents)’. (2013) Shambala Publications, Boston.

[3] For more info there has been some excellent research carried out by Story and Neumark-Sztainer (2005). A perspective on family meals: Do they matter? Nutrition Today, 40 (6), 261-266; 2005

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