Written by Kaitlyn Jue and Dr. Elizabeth Adams
I used to dread lunchtime at school.
Managing 14 young children, the contents of their lunches, guiding them to make healthy choices, and ensuring that they all ate enough seemed like an impossible task to take on at noon every day.
Because it was.
I reached a point where this approach didn’t feel right anymore.
There are many days when after eating part of my own lunch, I realize that I’m not hungry enough to eat all of it. On other days, I eat every last bite. There are days where I intuitively want an apple first, while other days all I can think about is enjoying my sandwich/salad/other “main dish” before anything else.
Children have, and will follow, these same intuitions if we give them the time, space, and opportunity to do so.
Current research suggests that much of the conventional wisdom related to how we interact with kids around mealtime is actually counterproductive to meeting health and nutrition goals. For example, it is so common to see parents pressuring kids to eat their meals. This can take many forms with young children, but parents often encourage their kids to “take a few more bites,” using treats as an incentive to eat more of the presented meal, feeding kids that are able to feed themselves, or resorting to arguing, bribing, yelling, and even punishment as a means to entice more food intake. This desire to pressure children to eat is generally driven by good intentions of the parent - they do not want their child to be hungry or uncomfortable, and they worry about providing them proper nutrition.
A study published in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior found that children who were pressured to eat consumed significantly fewer fruits and vegetables and ate significantly more foods with less nutritional value compared with children who were not pressured to eat. Ultimately, the goal for our children is that they are able to make appropriate decisions about food independently, and are able to look to their bodies regarding cues about hunger. When parents put too much pressure on children, we aren’t giving them an opportunity to read their body signals, or develop the capacity to make independent choices about food and regulating what they eat. Battles also result in frustration and negative feelings about food and nourishing our bodies.
Changing our approach
In November of this past year, we worked together to begin exploring what would happen if we released the micro-management of meal times at school. One day, completely “cold turkey,” we stepped back and let our students take the lead.
Using evidence-based practices, our new approach to lunch management empowered the children to make their own choices about what they ate from their lunch, in what order they ate it, and how much they ate.
One common practice around mealtimes is having children eat a certain amount of a meal in order to get a dessert or treat (e.g., “Take three more bites of your chicken then you can have your brownie”). Nutritionists suggest that this practice encourages kids to be less mindful of what they are eating. Psychologically, it sets up the meal as a “chore” that kids have to muck through in order to earn the “prize” at the end of the meal, rather than teaching kids the value and appeal of a variety of foods, and how to make choices in a food landscape where lots of choices exist. This is especially important since children have an immense amount of control over their diets as young as elementary school when many of their choices over food choices, the order of consumption, and amount of intake are generally independent.
In our classroom, given our new approach, when a child asked, “How many more bites of [insert food type here] before I can have my treat?” We’d respond with “Listen to your tummy and choose what you think will help it feel best,” as opposed to providing an ambiguous number (“three more bites”), which is what I had done for years.
At first, I’m fairly certain a few of the kids thought I was joking. And, as expected, there were a few students who dove straight for that “treat” as soon as their lunch boxes were opened. But, over time, I noticed my students speaking intentionally about their food choices and intuitive eating processes with increased mindfulness and confidence.
One day, after taking two bites from a cookie, one student shared, “I think my tummy is all done with my cookie today. I’m going to save it for when I get home.”
On another occasion, a different student was trying to determine what she wanted a bite of, she spoke, “Tummy, what do you want? Do you want the mango? Or crackers? I think my tummy wants both so I’m eating them together like a sandwich.”
Helpful tips for managing mealtime (for teachers and parents)
We as adults are often fearful about allowing kids to take more control over their eating because we worry that children will make only unhealthy food choices, or that they will “starve” without the pressure to eat. Physically “making” a child eat is not possible, and most toddlers figure out very quickly that this is one of the few domains where they have a lot of control. Below are a few tips to help you work with your child in developing healthy eating habits, and making fueling the body a positive experience.
1). Have developmentally appropriate expectations regarding quantity intake. Parents often pack too much food for young children, and then are dismayed when a lunchbox returns home half-full. Education regarding typical and nourishing amounts and types of food for growing children is an appropriate place to start!
2). Present a variety of foods, including somme options you know your kids will eat. Repeated exposure to new and healthy foods is key! One aspect parents can control in many mealtime situations is what food is offered. Focus on offering a variety of options, and give your child the control is choosing which of the foods they will eat, and how much of each they will eat.
3). Be mindful of what you focus on. It is far more important to talk about food in terms of fuel, and the positive aspects of different foods, instead of labeling foods as “good” and “bad.” Use mealtimes as a time to also focus on connection and being together, and make the presence of your child at a family meal mandatory, rather than making a certain number of bits the mandatory focus. Encourage kids to listen to their bodies, and recognize cues about hunger and fullness. Praise trying new things and kids expression of paying attention to signals, rather than praising eating certain amounts or avoiding certain foods.
4). Relax! Taking the pressure off takes some getting used to, and can activate anxiety in parents and caregivers. Rest easy that children may learn from a natural consequence of being hungry if they choose not to eat at dinner (tip: set the dinner aside for later, or keep fruits and veggies on hand as “anytime food” if they indicate their tummy is telling them they are hungry!). These learning experiences of cause and effect will help them to grow and understand how to read their body’s cues, and respond accordingly.
For more tips on developing healthy eating habits at home, see our evidence-based infographic below:
Mealtime should be a positive experience for the family; one that is focused on fueling bodies, and connecting over a conversation and a shared meal. In the landscape of “picking battles,” micromanaging food intake is likely a smart one to give up - and you may be pleasantly surprised by the outcome.
Remember that what each child needs is different. Dr. Adams provides individual (Skype or phone based) parent coaching to address a range of concerns (e.g., sleep struggles, tantrums, limit testing, co-parenting issues). Email Dr. Adams for more information, or to schedule an appointment at email@example.com, or learn more here: www.personalizedparenting.org.