The daily dinner battle

Does your child spend more time playing with their food than eating it?
Does your child spend more time playing with their food than eating it? Photo: Getty Images

I’m willing to bet most of us have uttered these words “finish what’s on your plate or you’re not getting dessert”. I have even heard myself preaching to my kids about the starving children in Africa as I cajole them into eating their dinner. Yet with my adult clients I spend a great deal of time undoing the ingrained practice of finishing what’s on your plate. We discuss strategies for avoiding overeating and non-hungry eating. I teach them my hunger rating scale to help them to get back in touch with their bodies so that true hunger guides them rather than external cues to eat. It’s brought me full circle back to my kids and made me think about how I can start to establish those good habits early, rather than waiting to undo them all once they reach adulthood.

Part of the problem is that many kids do need encouragement to eat healthy foods. This makes it difficult to get the balance right between encouragement to eat well, and encouragement to overeat. There are big differences between kids in this regard. I have one child who has always had a bigger appetite than his brother and he is generally more interested in food. My other son needs far more cajoling to eat dinner. I’m frequently faced with the frustration of him not finishing dinner, telling me he is full, only to announce that he’s hungry an hour later.

As parents we want to nourish our kids and it’s immensely satisfying when clean plates signal the end of a lovingly homemade meal. But the fact is that two thirds of us are overweight and a quarter of our kids are. So even if your kids are a healthy weight now, they are at great risk of being overweight at some point in the future. It’s essential that we start early in teaching them good eating habits and that means how we eat, as well as what we eat.

So I’m endeavouring to teach my kids about the difference between hunger and appetite. The word appetite comes from the Latin word appetitus meaning ‘desire for’. Having an appetite for something is distinctly different to being truly hungry. We are surrounded by deliciously tasty food options and our desire to eat them is not always driven by hunger. We eat because we want the pleasurable feeling that comes with it, because we’re bored, because we see someone else eating something tasty or as an emotional response to being upset or angry. This is our appetite for food. Children have to learn this.

One of my sons told me he was hungry the other day. So I said he could have a banana. His response “I’m not hungry for a banana, I’m hungry for ice-cream!” Point in case. We need to teach our kids the difference between appetite and hunger. That doesn’t mean we should never eat simply for pleasure. But we need to recognize when we are doing it and learn to restrain ourselves from doing it too often otherwise weight control will almost certainly be a lifelong problem.

One technique I’ve found to work with kids is to talk about being hungry above or below the neck. Teach kids that if you’re truly hungry you’ll feel and sometimes even hear your tummy growling. But other times you’re ‘hungry’ above the neck, meaning you really just feel like eating a certain food. This is appetite and not hunger. If the desire to eat is a sweet treat you can almost always bet it’s appetite and not real hunger.

We can also start to teach our kids good eating habits at the table. Many of us wolf down our food so fast it’s difficult to tell when you’re truly satisfied. It’s only half an hour later when you feel uncomfortably full that you realise you overate. So let’s get our kids eating at the right speed. The slow eaters might well need a little cajoling, but rest assured this is a habit that will serve them well in the future. The ‘wolfers’ - ask them to slow down. Place their cutlery down between mouthfuls and swallow before preparing the next mouthful. Then talk with them about feeling satisfied with their meal rather than always having to clear the plate.

Of course if they’ve only eaten two mouthfuls I’m not suggesting you let them get away with that. Rather we can find that balance between encouragement and allowing them to manage their own quantity. I heard a fellow dietitian once say “our job is to provide healthy foods for our kids, but it’s up to them how much of it they eat”. Provided you are not falling back on allowing them whatever they like to fill up, the strategy works. Kids won’t allow themselves to starve and we just might help them to turn the tide of overeating that plague us.

My solution for the son who rarely finishes his dinner is to have a “kitchen’s closed” time after dinner. We now make clear to him that he can choose not to finish his meal if he’s truly satisfied, but that there isn’t anything else until breakfast. After one or two nights of fights over this, he seems to have got the message. Low and behold he’s eating more at dinner.