When to end dinner?  The answer seems like it should be simple: you end dinner when everyone has eaten enough.

If you have a dawdler, the kind of kid who can spend 45 minutes eating, chatting, playing, and then eating some more, you know that deciding when to call it quits isn’t always so clear cut.

But even if you have a focused child, the kind who gets right down to business, figuring out when to end a meal can be tricky: your child says she’s done, but you’re not convinced that 2 bites of chicken and a swig of milk are going to do the trick.  And the last thing you want to deal with is a whiny, fussy, hungry kid 20 minutes after the dishes are done.

That’s why parents say they are always pushing Two More Bites.  Recent research provides a different explanation.

Research shows that parents don’t usually even ask their preschool kids if they are full. When they do ask, however, parents don’t believe what their children say.

When preschool children try to claim they are full, they are frequently met with the following kinds of responses:

  • Disbelief – “But you’ve only had a few bites. You can’t be full.”
  • Encouragement – “You can do it; finish a few more bites.”
  • Pleading – “Please just eat this much and you’re done.”
  • Bribing – “There are cookies waiting when you finish up.”

(And if you find yourself under the table trying to persuade your pumpkin to open up, you know you’ve moved beyond bribing!)

In fact, when it comes to reporting satiation, parents are more likely to believe their infants than their toddlers, even though toddlers are more capable of communicating. Read The 2-More-Bites-Tango: How YOU Can Take the Lead.

Your heart is in the right place—you want your kids to be nourished and you don’t want to operate like a restaurant— but pushing kids to eat more than they want doesn’t just risk teaching them to overeat.  It teaches them they don’t have the right to know when they are full.  And that’s a more serious problem.

Knowing when to end a meal is complicated.

Because you don’t actually know how much food your children need at any particular moment—a truth that’s tough to live with—and because as long as there is food or drink left on the plate the meal can still be “in play,” it’s hard to know what to do.

But how you end the meal matters.

  • If you are a person who can trace your after-dinner sweet “need” to childhood, you know what I mean.
  • And if you have a hard time putting your fork down as long as there is food on your plate, you also know what I mean.

Mealtimes serve a variety of functions, only one of which is to keep your kids fed. 

When you think bigger than the food you realize that it’s during mealtimes that you are also:

  • Shaping your children’s relationship to food and teaching about who controls their bodies. (Is it you, or is it them?)
  • Instructing your kids on the rules of eating. (You eat, you don’t play. You sit on a chair, you don’t stand on it. You put food in your mouth, not on the floor.)
  • Teaching your children how to engage in a structured conversation, where there are rules about who speaks and when it’s alright to interrupt.
  • Exposing your children to the wider culture through conversation with parents and siblings.

And the list goes on…

When mealtimes become centered on food problems—on getting kids to eat more, to eat less or to eat in a timelier manner—these other functions of the meal become subverted.  In other words, you’re not only shaping your child’s relationship to food, you are shaping your child’s relationship with you, with siblings, with the world…no pressure!

I’m not saying you shouldn’t hurry things along, or create an environment conducive to eating.

I am saying that you have to be conscious of the lessons (all the lessons) that your kids are learning and make sure that you teach the ones you intend.  About food  About rights. About interactions. About life.

For more on this topic read Raising Lawyers.

~ Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

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Additional source:  Laurier, E. and S. Wiggins. 2011. “Finishing the Family Meal. the Interactional Organisation of Satiety.” Appetite 56: 53-64.