Updated: Sep 18, 2020
As adults, most of us are fairly good at anticipating how much we're going to eat (even though that's often more than we actually need!). What make things tricky is when someone else fills your plate for you; you tend to want to eat it all so as not to disappoint them. When we give a very young child a plate of food we're indicating to them how much we expect them to eat. But equally importantly, the amount we put on the plate is a reflection of how much we think they’re going to eat. If they don't eat it all, we can feel disappointed, if not downright worried. If we're sensible, we'll simply re-adjust our estimate for next time. But so often we try instead to cajole the child into meeting our expectations, which are then confirmed as being valid. We find ourselves saying:
"Oh, come on, I made it specially!" or "But it's your favourite!".
This makes things worse – for us and them – the next time they ‘fail’ to finish the portion we’ve chosen for them. Over time they learn to eat to please us, rather than for their own needs.
A helpful way round this is to encourage even very young children to decide for themselves how much they think they're going to eat, and to let them serve themselves. If they overestimate the first few times and end up leaving some, no matter. As long as they know they're free to have 'seconds' if they want, the chances are they'll spontaneously take less next time. If they're old enough to have language we can talk with them about how sometimes, even for adults, 'our eyes are bigger than our tummy'. We can even talk about why wasting food isn’t great. But what we mustn't do is to punish them for not guessing right – especially by making them eat what they've taken. In reality, unless they’ve previously been restricted in what they’ve been allowed, children often take less than their parents expect them to – which is kind of the point! Indeed, it’s amazing how accurately children as young as 18 months are able to estimate their needs when they're given the freedom to make their own decisions.
As well as being a preventive strategy, to help families avoid those dreaded mealtime battles of toddlerhood, the 'serve yourself' approach also works really well for picky eaters. Many children are willing to try something new, or to eat a small portion of something they don't usually like, if they're allowed to choose which piece or how big a spoonful to take. Inviting them to decide for themselves puts the control over eating back with them, so they no longer have any need to fight us for it.
Taking the pressure and emotion out of eating frees up all of us – adults, children and babies – to listen to our bodies and truly enjoy our food.
Gill Rapley is an author, published researcher and Mother of 3. She initially trained as a Health Visitor and has also worked as a Midwife.
She is the author of many wonderful books. Baby-Led Weaning, The Baby-led weaning cookbook, Baby-led Breastfeeding, Baby-led parenting and The Baby-led weaning quick and easy recipe book. To purchase any of the books click here. For more information about Gill and her work head to her website: http://www.rapleyweaning.com/index.php
"Thanks so much to Gill for being so kind and willing to write this exclusive piece for us here at Good Thinking psychological Services. This post was fuelled by our initial piece about lunchtime leftovers. You can read this post by clicking here."