We live in a weight-obsessed culture. It’s hard not to worry that our kids might be eating too much. And we compare – all the time.
Do they eat more than their siblings, friends, or cousins? Are they larger than other kids in their class? Have well-intentioned friends or family commented that they have a ‘hearty appetite’ or are ‘well covered’ and you need to do something?
If your child’s weight plots consistently on his growth chart he is growing normally, even if he is heavier than other children. And remember that most children slim down as they get older, and that it’s normal for a child to gain weight before a growth spurt.
But if you make an issue about your child’s weight, you could create the very problem you’re trying to avoid.
The strategy we use when feeding a larger child is to keep portions down while tightly controlling ‘indulgent’ food. But research shows that this practice backfires.
How come? Children who are restricted at mealtimes often develop a habit of eating when they can, rather than for hunger. They may sneak food when parents aren’t around, or eat large amounts at parties where ‘forbidden’ food is abundant. And the bigger they get, the more control parents exert on food.
Fast forward 10 years and you have the child who is finally in charge of what she’s eating. But because what she eats has been in someone else’s hands for so long (her parents), she feels out of control. She’s lost the art of food regulation.
As parents we need to preserve this in our children. That means children use their hunger and fullness cues to guide eating.
So what’s your job as a parent? You decide what to serve, when to serve it, and where to serve it. Your child decides whether and how much to eat.
You allow your kids to decide when they have finished eating, while encouraging them to tune in to their hunger and fullness cues.
Some tips to follow
- Maintain a steady structure with mealtimes. Opt for family style service – that is, place all the food in the middle of the table (or use the cooking serving pots in the kitchen to save washing up) and allow the family to help themselves.
- Have family meals at least three times a week.
- Offer fruit, vegetables and other nourishing, good tasting foods daily.
- Focus on healthy habits, not on weight.
- Role model a healthy lifestyle and food environment.
- Allow treats, but don’t use them as a reward.
- Swap refined grains for wholegrains as much as possible eg swap white bread for wholemeal or rye; sugary, low fibre breakfast cereals for wholegrain eg Weetbix.
- Target healthy fats and avoid fried foods.
- Encourage daily exercise.
- Feel good about the child you have, not the one you thought you’d have.
- Limit television.
- Keep lifestyle habits healthy – adequate sleep, healthy diet, and exercise. These are the keys to longterm health.
- Single out your child for her eating or weight, and don’t let others do this either. Children who are labelled overweight feel flawed and not worthy in many areas.
- Micromanage everything that goes into their mouths – give your children some autonomy over their eating.
- Focus too much on ‘healthy eating’.
- Keep sugar-sweetened drinks at home.
- Ban sweets or other treat foods at home or when out – this will only create more desire for them.