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Recently, I was doing an assessment in my clinical practice and reviewed a video of a family meal – Mum, Dad and their four-year-old daughter. The meal lasted 58 minutes! How could a four-year-old sit at the table for that long, I hear you ask. Well, she did a pretty good job of it. It was her mum who became frustrated, angry and sick of being there for so long.

Stress at mealtimes

The fact is that the child eats all she is hungry for in the first 10 minutes. However her parents don’t trust her appetite and think she hasn’t eaten ‘enough’. The remainder of the meal is spent with the parents bribing, cajoling and pressuring her to eat. They use every trick in the book to get their daughter to eat more. These kind of  meals are unpleasant for everyone, don’t achieve what parents want and certainly don’t help the child to become a competent eater. In fact, the child may end up eating less rather than more because of this. Stress can lead to anxiety around mealtimes. Anxiety is known to decrease appetite. A child may be anxious even before she gets to the table if mealtimes are often stressful.

How much is enough?

I am always intrigued when parents feel that their child hasn’t eaten ‘enough’. How can someone know how much is ‘enough’ for someone else? I certainly can’t. Appetite varies from meal to meal and from day to day. If a child is growing well, then they are eating enough for their unique needs.

The trust model

We need to trust our children’s appetite, knowing that when there is food available, children will eat enough. An infant who is breastfed knows how much milk to take without anyone else knowing the exact quantity they are taking. We feed when the baby is hungry and stop when they show us they have had enough. At every age, it is up to the child to decide how much to eat from the food that is offered. When we don’t let the child do their job of deciding how much to eat, we are interfering with their natural hunger and satiety cues. We are giving them the message that we don’t trust their appetite. Unfortunately, this lack of trust can result in children overeating or under eating and not having the body they were meant to have.

I am reminded of children’s variable appetite when I take my three year-old granddaughter to have sushi for lunch. Each time she chooses the packet of baby tuna sushi. There are six pieces of sushi in the packet. Some days she eats all six pieces and some of mine as well. Other weeks she stops after three pieces and other times she may have less or more. I have no idea how much she is going to eat before the meal starts.

Letting your child eat according to his/her own individual appetite is one of the best things you can do for her/him to become a competent eater – a competent eater enjoys eating, comes to the table when called for mealtimes, learns to like the foods his/her parents like eating, and regulates the amount of food eaten based on hunger and satiety.

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