Should you let your kids stop eating even if you suspect they’re not quite full?

Or let them eat if you know they’re not hungry?

The surprising answer is yes.

Otherwise, kids just learn to lie.

In most families, there is only one legitimate reason to eat: hunger.

That means if kids want to eat something they have to say they’re hungry, even if they’re not. “That cake looks good; I’m hungry.”

It also means that if they don’t want to eat something kids often have o say they’re not hungry, even if they are. “Those peas look gross; I’m not hungry.” (Sometimes kids also say, “I don’t like it,” to get out of eating.)

I don’t really think of this as lying, per se. Rather, children are working with the tools we give them.

A story to illustrate the problem:

One day when my daughter was about four I needed to drag her along during an unusually long morning of running errands. As we were going to be in a part of town that we rarely visited, which also happened to be near my daughter’s favorite ice cream parlor, I told her that I would take her for an ice cream when we were done.

After running around for most of the morning, we headed over to the ice cream parlor. It was around noon so I asked my daughter if she was hungry. I thought the question was relatively benign but when my daughter stared back at me in silence I knew something was wrong.

I waited a moment and then asked again. Still, nothing. After a few minutes I had an insight.

  • “You can’t tell me whether you’re hungry,” I said.
  • “You are worried that if you say you are hungry I will make you eat lunch. Then you’ll be too full for ice cream.”
  • “On the other hand, if you say that you’re not hungry, you’re worried that I won’t let you have any ice cream because we don’t usually eat when we’re not hungry. Is that right?”
  • My daughter nodded; her eyes welled up.
  • She was in quite a jam; she really wanted that ice cream.

The solution:

  • “How about if you tell me the truth and I promise that you can have ice cream either way.”
  •  That reassured my daughter enough for her to admit, albeit tentatively, that she really was hungry.
  • So I suggested that we stop off at a restaurant and share a small salad. After that we would go on for the ice cream.

Insisting that kids eat at least some healthy food before moving on to the fun stuff is a common parenting strategy.

But I wasn’t using the ice cream to get my daughter to eat the salad. I was trying to teach her something about hunger.

So what would I have done if my daughter had said that she wasn’t hungry? If we had the time, I would have pushed off eating for an hour or so until my daughter had more of an appetite. Then we would have eaten the light lunch followed by the ice cream.

But if that wasn’t in the cards, if we had to rush right home for instance, I would have taken my daughter for the ice cream, as promised. I just would have talked to her about hunger first. “Remember,” I would have said, “you’re not really hungry. Normally it would be better to wait until you were hungry, but we don’t have time today. So, let’s just have a small ice cream. You don’t want to get too full, or to get a tummy ache.”

Teach your kids to become fluent in the “language” of hunger—no matter how young they are.

Eating is a complicated business because people eat for all sorts of reasons and kids need to know this.

For instance, in addition to Tummy Hunger, people often eat because of the following reasons:

  • Taste Hunger; something looks good. When this happens, it’s best to have a small portion, just a taste.
  • Practical Hunger, they need to eat for practical reasons such as when there won’t be time for lunch later. In this case, you might have to have a few bites even if you aren’t hungry.
  • Emotional Hunger, the times we eat to quench uncomfortable feelings. These situations are best responded to with a hug, or other comforting measure.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Tribole, E. and E. Resch, 2003. Intuitive Eating: a Revolutionary Program That Works., Vol. 2nd Edition. New York: St. Martin’s Press.