We all worry from time to time whether our children are eating enough. We worry that without enough healthy food their physical development might be affected. We worry about the effect of hunger on their mood. We worry that by eating too little at meal times – especially dinner – they will come back to us for snacks and it will mess up other plans (like bed).
Let’s face it – we just worry, worry, worry! But when it comes to feeling our children don’t eat, we probably worry without reason most of the time.
Some official advice
Here is some advice to families from the excellent Australian Raising Children Network website (2018):
You might worry about whether your child is eating enough. Or you might be worried that your child is eating too much and going over a healthy weight.
As a parent you give your child healthy food and opportunities to eat it. It’s up to your child to decide how much to eat – or whether to eat at all. It’s normal for children’s appetites to change from day to day.
One day your child might want to eat a lot – just make sure that you fill him up with healthy food. Another day he might not want to eat.
Try not to worry, because he’ll probably make up for it at the next meal or even the next day.
One of the other reasons we worry our kids aren’t eating enough healthy food is because of what they leave behind on their plates. If you’ve already read The Flawsome Family Mealbook you might know what I’m about to ask:
Are you putting too much food on your kids’ plates?
Are you? It’s very possible. Everywhere we look, portions are getting bigger and bigger. I have some little bowls on my food prepping shelf that I use for holding small quantities of chopped vegetables: they are the same size as the bowls from a dinner set I bought when I moved out of home.
If you’ve ever had to work on your own weight (sigh) then you’ll know that one of the first things you need to check is the quantity of food that’s become normal for you to serve yourself. It can be a bit scary to realise you’re used to eating meat that’s regularly twice the amount per serve for a healthy adult. Often, we’re told to look at our hands – the size of your palm is a good guide to how much meat/protein you should eat in the meal.
These overeating habits creep up on us as adults and can be very hard to fight off once embedded. But our children – depending on their ages – are often yet to learn they even can teach their body to overeat. Their stomach-to-brain connection is strong and clear, and every time we ask them to take one more bite we chip away at their trust in their own judgment about whether they are full or not.
So how can we help them keep that beautiful gift of knowing their own appetites?
One way is to stop choosing their portions for them and handing over the plate. Instead, stock up on small kitchen tongs and put food on the table for everyone to share. It doesn’t have to be fancy, although it’s certainly satisfying to do a platter when you have time. Just put some heat mats down and take the saucepan of pasta and pot of bolognese sauce over to the table. If the pots are hot and arms are very short, sure, kids may need some help but generally they will learn fast how to get their food safely to the plate.
However, you can’t always serve centrally from the table, or even from the kitchen bench. Sometimes your kids are too tiny, sometimes you are too busy, sometimes the food itself doesn’t allow central serving. On those occasions, and for when you’re just naturally monitoring what they do give themselves, you need a good idea of how much food is ‘enough’ for a healthy child of any size.
Yes, you can go to the Australian Dietary Guidelines. They are carefully prepared by proper experts and have tables for all ages and genders (for example, adolescent boys and girls have different requirements). This link lets you download a brochure that covers all the details – the thing is, they are details and not many parents feeding a family have a lot of time for detail in the delivery!
Some hand-y advice
What I’m going to share now is literally a rule of thumb. It’s going to change your life, but it has to come with a *This Is Not Real Science warning.
Are you ready?
You can measure your recommended daily servings by looking at your hand – remember the palm sized piece of protein for adult dieters? AND you can estimate your kids’ recommended daily servings by looking at their hands.
- Milk: a whole fist
- Cooked vegetables: a palm
- Cooked pasta: a fist
- Cooked meat: one palm
- Raw salad: two handfuls
- Peanut butter: one thumb
- Butter: a fingertip
- Cheese: two fingers together
Clearly this kind of measuring isn’t as accurate as using a digital scale while referring to the national dietary requirements in micrograms, but it’s way more practical and unless you’re a nutritionist or a food chemist you probably won’t really know what you’re measuring anyway.
If you’re sick of wasting food each time your child says they are full, try asking them to show you their hand. The answer might be right there in their palms!