Friday 1 February 2013

Should We Force Children to Eat?

According to today’s Telegraph, nine out of 10 parents surveyed admitted to throwing away leftovers from their child’s dinner plate. The article asks whether we should be forcing our children to eat what’s on their plates.

The simple answer to that is no. If there is a lot of food left at the end of each meal, we are probably unknowingly trying to overfeed our children.

Researchers have found that forcing your child to eat after he is full, can interfere with the development of his self-control regarding food.

Children know when they are hungry, and when they are full, because their bodies tell them. When we try to force them to only eat at scheduled times, or to eat a set amount dictated by us, we are trying to override their instincts about food.

If we force the child to eat more than necessary, then the child will lose the ability to correctly regulate their food intake, and this could lead to obesity in later life. A person who regularly overeats will be at risk of many health problems such as diabetes, heart disease, cancers and joint problems.

The early years of a child’s life are crucial for developing a healthy attitude to food that will last them the rest of their lives. As parents, we must facilitate meal times, but we should not see it as an area to exercise control.

Here are some tips for helping your child to eat well:

1. Some days your child may want to eat more than normal (for example if they are going through a growth spurt or have been particularly active), and other days they may eat less (for example if they are feeling under the weather). Variations in daily food intake are normal, do not worry about it. Just allow them to eat until they are full.
If your child’s appetite has reduced drastically and you are concerned there may be an underlying health problem, talk to your GP.

2. Trust your child. I think parents can often assume a child who won’t eat is being difficult, when in fact they are full. Don’t assume the worst of your child. If they won’t eat their dinner, don’t tell them off and send them to bed. Allow them to leave the dinner table, knowing they can have the leftovers if they feel hungry later.

3. Make sure everything on your child’s plate is good for them. In the media, we often see parents fighting with their children to eat their vegetables and not just the salty chips on their plate. If we remove the chips, and replace them with something healthier, then we don’t need to fight about what they’re eating. As the parent, we are in charge of putting food on their plate, so let’s make sure the plate is filled with a variety of healthy foods containing all of their essential vitamins and nutrients. There’s no point wasting plate space with unhealthy junk food. 

4. If you can, breastfeed. Studies have found that breastfed babies are less likely to suffer from obesity in later life. This is partly because breastfed babies have to work harder for their milk, and also because breastmilk changes to suit the needs of the babies. Formula fed babies can be overfed, but breastfed babies cannot due to the changing nature of human milk. 

Ebony eating some scrambled tofu

5. Give baby led weaning a try. When it’s time to wean your baby, offer them the chance to control what and how much they eat. This means that they will be in control of their relationship with solid food from day one. If you spoon feed a baby purees, you are taking control of that relationship. I’d recommend this book if you want to find out more about baby led weaning.

6. Provide healthy meals. Teach your child to enjoy healthy foods. Let them explore different fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds. Try not to offer them sweets or salty foods. You probably think that sounds boring, but that’s because you know how tasty sweets and salty foods are, your baby doesn’t, try to keep it that way a little longer.

7. Don’t have puddings. It’s quite an odd tradition to deliberately not fill yourself up with a healthy main course, in order to feast on sweets straight after. It’s fine to have sweets occasionally, but it shouldn’t be something children do every day.

The Telegraph article was asking whether forcing our children to eat their leftovers would reduce the amount of food we throw it. It was recently reported that half of the world’s food is thrown away. This is disgraceful and is definitely something which needs to be tackled, but I don’t think forcing our children to eat when they’re not hungry is the answer.

A lifetime of healthy eating habits will prevent waste in the future, so I believe it is worth leaving that food on the child’s plate for now.

To reduce waste, I cook a meal to feed the whole family. I give my daughter a reasonable portion, if she wants more, she can have it out of the pan. Anything she leaves on her highchair tray can easily be stored in tupperware and refrigerated or frozen for use at another meal time.

Any food waste we do produce, is composted in the garden, nothing goes into the general rubbish bin.

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