5 Things to Do If Your Child Eats Too Fast or Too Much
By Sarah Remmer
PHOTO © ELENA SHASHKINA/123RF
Jan 25, 2018
Picky eating is by far the most common concern or challenge that I come across as a pediatric dietitian, but there are also those kids — in fact, I have one myself — who tend to overeat and/or eat too fast. Parents either celebrate this love for food, or worry that their child overeats and is doomed to weight or health issues.
If this sounds familiar, it’s important not to stress about it (in fact, projecting stress, pressure or worry might even make it worse). Instead, focus on your role as the “feeder” and trust that your child will do their job as the “eater.”
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My seven-year-old son typically eats very fast and outeats me — and his dad — most days, yet continues to follow his growth curve and remains at a healthy weight. Some kids just love food and need more than others. This fluctuates depending on whether they’re going through a growth spurt, what their activity level is and so many other factors.
Here are five things to do if your child tends to eat fast or too much:
1. Make sure that you’re following the Division of Responsibility in Feeding
First and foremost, it’s important that both parents and kids are clear about their mealtime roles. All too often, these roles get reversed, which can cause or exacerbate feeding issues, especially when it comes to kids who overeat or are picky eaters.
I’m a strong believer in the advice of international childhood feeding expert Ellyn Satter, who created The Division of Responsibility in Feeding (DOR), a feeding philosophy stating that parents are responsible for what, where and when food is served, while kids are in charge of if and how much they eat. The DOR clearly defines feeding roles and takes pressure off everyone, which means parents don’t need to micromanage food intake and kids don’t need to feel anxious at mealtimes. If kids are served balanced healthy meals and snacks, at appropriate intervals, and are given the opportunity to self-regulate their intake, they will learn to eat intuitively and according to their physical hunger cues.
2. Allowing natural consequences and turning them into teachable moments
I’ll never forget the night that we ordered pizza, and my son – four-years-old at the time – ate an entire pizza to himself. He loves food, and one of his favourites is pizza We had served raw veggies, too, which he also ate. I kept reminding him to “slow down” and “listen to your tummy,” but he insisted that he eat piece after piece, which we didn’t deny him. I knew that he would be overfull, but I almost wanted it to happen so that he would learn the natural consequences of eating too fast and too much.
As I predicted, he complained of a horrible tummy ache after dinner, but instead of saying “I told you so,” I asked him why he thought he had a tummy ache, and he realized on his own that it was because he had eaten too much.
Moral of the story: let your child experience the discomfort of overeating. Don’t interfere, get mad or judge, and let them figure out why it happened on their own so that they can learn how to self-regulate.
3. Reassure your child that their favourite foods aren’t restricted
If your child feels that a desired food is limited or restricted, it will create a desire for more, so that when it is available, they may eat more in anticipation of it being restricted afterwards. Make sure to offer a variety of nutritious foods at mealtime, but also include foods your kids love. And then let them have as much as they’d like.
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We often serve meals “family style,” meaning that we lay the meal components out on the table or counter, and the kids get to serve themselves in proportions that feel right to them. They’re always able to go back for more, but if I notice any of my kids eating too fast, I remind them to slow down, listen to their tummies and reassure them that we’ll eat that food again soon, even tomorrow!
4. Serve Dessert with dinner sometimes
From time to time, offer your kids a treat with their meal, instead of after. I know — it sounds crazy! Last fall, I gave my son a few smarties with his lunch (he asked me if he could have some after lunch, they were leftover from Halloween). He was a bit confused when I offered them with his sandwich and veggies, but didn’t say much about it.
Sometimes kids either rush through their meal to get to their dessert quicker or “save up” for their dessert, eating less of their meal than they usually would. Putting the treat on a level playing field with the rest of the meal decreases the urgency to finish and takes the treat’s “appeal” down a notch or two. My son continued to eat his meal and every few minutes popped a smartie into his mouth. Since then, I’ve offered a treat alongside meals randomly, and my kids think it’s fun. And they still eat the rest of their meal like they normally would.
5. Remind your child to 'listen to their tummy' and 'slow down'
Instead of getting your kids to “eat three more bites,” or telling them “after that serving, you’re done,” ask them to “listen to their tummy” to help them know when they should stop eating. Describe how it might feel when you’re “just right” and when you're overfull or not full enough.
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If your child tends to overeat, reassure them that the most important thing is to listen to their tummy, and that they can always have more of that food later at a future meal or snack. This strategy will encourage your child to trust their internal physical hunger cues when eating and will foster long term intuitive eating.
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