How we’ve worked through the “Eat more, eat less, eat now” struggles to have a peaceful family dinner.

kids drinking hot cocoaRaising kids is a big old umbrella term.  You think it’s one thing, but it’s not.  It’s a lot of little things: Raising compassionate people.  Raising readers.  Raising thinkers.  Raising eaters.  We’re raising an awful lot, you know.  There’s a complex system of being that goes into forming a whole kid who will eventually become a whole adult, and you have to devote yourself to each and every one of those fundamental parts if you expect the outcomes to be what you want.

Here on RRG, we mainly talk about raising eaters, and there’s quite a bit that goes into that, too.  Take, for instance, the idea of helping kids to manage their own eating as far as their hunger and fullness cues.  This is a big deal.  No pressure, fellow parents, but this is actually one of the MAJOR deals – one of the ones that, if we mess it up, research shows will have an adverse effect on our kids for the rest of their lives.  Again…no pressure.

J. and I haven’t got it all figured out, for sure, but what we do have on our hands is two distinctly different kids with totally different eating styles, and we have to help them both understand how much to eat, when to eat, and when to stop.  Complex stuff, particularly if you factor in the reality that most of us adults still don’t entirely have it nailed down.  Do you always stop eating at exactly the right point, leaving behind modest portions of your food because you just don’t need to eat any more (but you’re not too full, and not too empty)?  Do you always turn down desserts or your favorite snack foods if they’re offered at a time when you’re not really hungry for them?  Yeah…me, neither.  I try, but it’s not a gracefully ingrained habit by any means.

I don’t expect perfection in this area, of myself or of my kids.  But I do try to stress the importance of being mindful of this particular eating skill.  Here are some of the steps we’ve taken to start building better self-control into our boys at the table.

Serving Family Style.

There’s a ton of conflicting research out there as to which way is better for long-term healthy habits.  Some people say that you have to keep the platters out of sight to discourage second helpings and overeating.  Others say that serving family-style allows everyone to take charge of their own plates.  This is more the direction we’ve moved in as the boys have gotten older.  I still do plate their initial meal, but I try to keep the portions modest.  Then they’re allowed to eat as they choose – as long as they’ve tasted everything on the plate, they can take more of what they like (or refuse what they don’t).

Honoring their eating clocks.

I swear, different kids are born with different internal eating clocks.  L.’s a good 3-meal-a-day guy, who often foregoes snacking but will eat a good portion of widely varied foods at breakfast, lunch, and dinner.  P.’s more of a grazer who, by dinnertime, is just done with the whole idea of eating.  He’ll join us at the table for pleasant family time and he’ll get some bites in, but mostly, dinner is social for him, not sustenance.  When I finally decided to stop trying to change his style, things got much easier for us.  It helped that I was able to realize that between breakfast, lunch, and two snacks a day, he was already eating a very wide variety of healthy, nutrient-dense foods; he grows well, sleeps well, plays well, and learns well, so what was I worried about if dinner happened to be more of a 6-bite affair than a real meal?

Allowing independence throughout the day.

They’re seven and almost-five years old, which means that not only are they tall enough to reach things, they’re coordinated enough to carry, open, pour, spread, and scoop (mostly) without me.  If L. does ask for a snack, I typically tell him to go to the pantry and find something – which, by the way, is a highly unemotional thing to do if you know that your pantry is mainly stocked with unobjectionable choices.  When P. asks for dessert, same goes.  They tend not to overestimate their appetites and they also tend not to take advantage of their freedoms, and as a totally separate bonus, I don’t have to jump up every time somebody wants something.

Biting our tongues.

While P. is the kind of legendary child who will literally hand me the last two bites of a cookie and say “I don’t need any more,” L. is more like the majority of us – he enjoys eating, and he will finish more than he needs on occasion (this is also, I think, made more pronounced by the fact that his sensory processing difficulties can obscure his ability to feel internal cues well).  Because nagging parents are neither enjoyable nor effective, we try to give him a little bit of rope to learn this particular lesson.  It’s hard, but the night he ate far too much at a restaurant and ended up with a stomach ache, I was able to ask him directly, “Why do you think you feel so rotten?”  He knew immediately: “I ate more than my tummy wanted.”  He’ll have more slip-ups, I’m sure, but since then he’s been far more mindful of his portions, and all it takes is a casual reminder from us (“Be good to your tummy!”) for him to slow down.

Putting the answers (and questions) in their hands.

We tried hard to never dictate how many bites our kids “needed” to take before they could have dessert, or leave the table, or what have you.  (I’m sure we haven’t been perfect on this, either, but we tried.)  P., however, seemed to have some ingrained sense of “how many more?” from the time he could talk.  He’d always ask and want us to put a limitation on things for him, no matter how small the portion he’d been served.  Finally, I started asking, “How many more bites do YOU think you should eat?”  He’d deliberate, choose a number, eat without complaint, and be done.  Now that he’s older, he’s turned it into a game: “Mommy, guess how many more I can eat.  Here are your choices: Five, or two?”  I guess, he tells me whether I’m right or wrong, and then he eats whichever number he’d decided on in the first place.  I don’t know why he feels like he needs to go through the ritual, but I suspect it has something to do with him wanting to be sure that I know he’s done – he’s not going to eat any more than he’s going to eat, and he wants to make a show of being his own boss.

Our strategies have evolved over the years, but right now, these are the tricks that tend to work in our house to keep mealtimes peaceful, and to keep the kids — and us — mindful of staying in control of our internal cues.  What works for your family?  Share it in the comments or get in touch with me on Facebook!