Kids come in all shapes and sizes and have a range of appetites. With some meals they eat everything on the plate, and sometimes it's a battle just to get in a few bites.
"Parents come to me saying meals are 45 minutes of hostage negotiating. 'It's not fun, we're fighting, everyone feels bad, and it's not working,'" said Katja Rowell, a trained family doctor who now helps parents struggling with feeding issues.
Anna Aylett, a registered dietitian at the Children's Hospital of Eastern Ontario in Ottawa, agrees with Rowell and said if there are no underlying medical conditions or failure to thrive issues — that is, they don't meet expected standards for growth — you feed kids with different body types the same way.
"[As] parents, we are in charge of what our kids eat, where they eat and when they eat. And the kids are responsible for how much they're going to eat," she said.
Aylett said parents can set limits on treats but shouldn't control portion sizes of healthy foods. "It causes more attention, possibly stigma and shame for the child you're trying to get to eat less. And it could just cause them to want to eat more," she said.
Parents can also take comfort in the fact that a few strategies can make mealtime less stressful for everyone.
"We don't have to cry at the end of a meal because you're pushing ice cream on the skinny one and literally snatching it out of the hands of the bigger child," Rowell explained. "Children are born able to self-regulate their intake."
Without knowing it, parents are overriding their children's innate ability to recognize cues for when they feel hungry and when they feel full.
Katja Rowell's five tips to take the negotiations off the table:
- When families eat together at least four or five time a week, there are measurable changes. "They tend to have better nutrition, they drink less soda, they have stable weight and have less disordered eating," she said.
- Serve your meals family style and give everyone a plate to fill themselves. "So if you don't pre-plate … and they get to serve themselves, and serve themselves more if they're still hungry, that's a huge help for picky eaters as well as decreasing conflict," Rowell explained.
- Rowell suggests sticking to a schedule, as kids who graze don't do as well with self-regulation. She suggests balanced options every two or three hours for kids six and under and every three to four hours for older kids.
- Give your kid responsibility over when to start and stop eating. In this scenario, parents provide a variety of foods, and that's it. "When you have that division of responsibility, it really decreases the power struggles and it teaches children to eat because they're hungry and to stop when they're full or their appetite has been satisfied," Rowell said.
- "Approach all food from a mentality of permission and of joy and that whether you put broccoli or ice cream on the table, it's with the same attitude," she said. Offering dessert as a reward for finishing a less desirable food changes how kids view those foods, Rowell explained. "We actually teach them to like the 'healthy foods' less, and then they also overvalue the dessert food."
A final tip from Anna Aylett — parents need to check their own food issues when they're dealing with their kids to ensure their own dieting history isn't coming into play.
"Like for example, low-fat foods, or fat-free or sugar-free foods, I'm often asking people to just stop buying them and buy the regular stuff because they're less satisfying and when it's a treat food, and it's occasional and portion-controlled and enjoyed together as a family, you don't need to look at the label."