When it comes to food, many parents treat the symptoms of their children’s eating problem, rather than treat the problem itself.

That’s what became clear to me when one reader asked the following question in response to my last post The Perils of Plate-Cleaning.

My question is, what age is old enough to know when they’ve eaten enough? I struggle with this with my 3-1/2 year old. She will say she is done and/or not hungry, but I don’t trust that she knows what this means. I will let her stop eating, but then before bed she will tell me she’s hungry. She also does the “I’m done” to get to the fruit, but not always. 🙂

I want to say that even the youngest kids are old enough to know when they’ve eaten enough, but that would be silly.

It’s clear that young children need guidance—not because they don’t have an innate ability to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they’re full, but because they have trouble communicating about hunger and satiation, because they haven’t quite connected the dots between eating and the end of hunger, and because the social constraints of eating are difficult to master. (More on this in a moment.)

So here’s my real answer: Managing how much your child eats is a technique that addresses the symptom and not the underlying problem.  You can coax your child into eating enough food so she makes it to bedtime (and then through the night), but at what cost?

This technique won’t teach your child how to identify and articulate her feelings of hunger and satiation more accurately, but it will teach her to look outside herself for cues about how much to eat.   That’s one of the Perils of Plate-Cleaning.

But I get it: it’s tough to know when to end a meal.  Read The Dinner Dance: When is Enough Enough?  And it’s tough to know what your child really means when she says “I’m not hungry.”  (I’ll address this in my post next week so stay tuned.)

Instead of encouraging your child to eat more, imagine being brutally honest: telling your child outright that she has to eat as much as you say until you think she’s old enough to figure that out for herself.

This would be honest and upfront, and would, in my opinion, be a pretty bold (or should I say brave) parenting move!  It also would be OK if your child went along with the plan, but what if she doesn’t?

Imagine your child responds, “But I’m not hungry.”  What could you say?

  • “I don’t believe you?”
  • “I’m the expert on your tummy, not you?”

Said this way, the lesson is pretty unpalatable.

If you want your child to eat more at meals you have to identify what your child needs to learn, and then teach it to her.

We ask a lot of toddlers when it comes to food and eating.  It’s not just about identifying hunger and satiation. We also ask them to:

  • Willingly eat foods that don’t make their Top 10 Lists because they’re healthy.
  • Moderate their eating so that they’re hungry on a schedule.
  • Eat when meals are prepared even if that means interrupting important play.
  • Predict how much they have to eat to get them to the next meal, which sometimes means making it through the night.

Address these lessons and you’re golden.  Here’s how:

1) Teach your children a style of eating that has them grazing around the plate—a bite of this a bite of that—so they eat some of the veggies before they are too full.  Read Playing for Peas.

2) Help your children plan for meals by moderating their snacks.  Read How Big is that Bag? Eating in the Age of Portion Distortion.

3) Double-check that you haven’t given your child an incentive not to eat meals.  Read Why Won’t My Child Eat Dinner?”

4) Figure out a way to (sometimes) let your child play.  Read When Playing is More Fun Than Eating.

5) Teach your child to report her hunger and satiation more accurately. Read How Much Should Your Kids Eat?

6) Serve less food and watch your toddler pack it away.  Read When Less is More.

7) Use dessert creatively.  Read Dishing Up Dessert.

8) Finally, recognize that sometimes, there is an Upside to Hunger.

The upshot is that if you change the structure of meals, and change how you interact with your child around meals, you’ll change how your child eats…


~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~