I was recently asked to write some articles for a national childcare magazine, and in the first piece I looked at the four biggest reasons for younger children (3 and up) to refuse food. It reminded me, all over again, that we rarely seem to trust a child’s appetite.
Appetite is something we’re born with. It helps us survive because we can demand to be fed from our earliest days on Earth. Appetite is a kind of sense; it sends messages between our bodies and brains about what, if any, food we need for sustenance. Appetite varies with our growth, our activity, our emotions and our environment.
A delicate tool
We can damage any of our senses by overwhelming them and appetite seems to be more fragile than smell or sight. It’s very easy to corrupt or distort our appetite’s measuring abilities over time.
In the well-provisioned community in which you probably live if you’re reading this blog post, you are quite likely to have lost or been taught to overcome some of your appetite’s ability to accurately judge your needs. Not trusting your own sense of hunger makes it harder to trust a child’s appetite.
Children aren’t born craving empty calories, high fats, salts and sugars, and they are born knowing how to stop when they are full
An obesity epidemic affects large parts of the world’s population and, sadly, around 20-25% of Australian children are currently either overweight or obese.
In some communities additional factors like poor infrastructure and a grotesque abundance of drive-through takeaway outlets has created a need for specialist help – Australia’s first Family Obesity service was launched in the Nepean district on Sydney’s outskirts.
Children aren’t born craving high fats, salts and sugars, and they are born knowing how to stop when they are full – it’s well-meaning adults (and a planet full of food marketers) who teach them otherwise. And it was almost certainly other well-meaning adults who taught us how to do that.
Which brings me back to my article for an early childhood education audience covering the four big reasons why children refuse food. I’ll talk about the other three another time, but n this post I’m only looking at number one because I reckon every parent has at least questioned their trust of a child’s appetite at some time.
They just aren’t hungry
It’s amazing how often our adult minds dismiss what is actually a very good reason for rejecting food.
We are all born with the ability to ‘hear’ the messages our body sends our brain; most of us are taught to ignore it and what a gift we lose! When a child is listening to their appetite and knows they are not hungry, they may even refuse foods they enjoy.
That doesn’t have to mean they are fussy, it could simply mean they trust their body, and they trust that you will not leave them hungry later when they need it.
Why don’t we trust it too?
Why is it so hard for us to leave that gift of appetite alone? Why can’t we share a child’s trust in their body’s messages?
It’s possible that you:
- don’t believe them – “You must be hungry”
- are certain the child will be hungry very soon – “You know you’re going to want this as soon as I pack it up”
- aren’t prepared to be a short-order cook – “Kitchen closes in five minutes”
- can’t cope with wasted effort – “Mummy worked hard to make this”
- think they’re holding out for ice cream (see my Insta post on this here)
- can’t cope with the wasted money – counting up the $$ in a rejected plate of food
- are rushing – “Hurry up and eat, we have to get to soccer/scouts/dad’s house etc”
- are worried they aren’t getting nutrition – “You’ve got to eat something!”
- have a h’angry kid who acts up when their blood sugars get low
- feel like you’re rejected, not the meal – food is love, isn’t it?
- hold fears about hunger from your own childhood that you might only feel, not articulate
- were never allowed to refuse food as a child because of your parents’ reactions.
I’m going to assume you’ve read this far because you see yourself in one or more of these scenarios – or something related to not trusting your child isn’t hungry. I’m a far-from-perfect mum, but one thing I know is that I’m a better parent when I have been able to understand the why behind my reactions to things kids do.
You’d think the world had moved on from force-feeding children to suit their parents view of their hunger, but it hasn’t. It only takes a minute of googling to find moving cries for help such as, I have just put my 4yo to bed at 11pm after four and a half hours trying to get him to eat more than a spoonful of dinner!
It’s hard to trust a child’s appetite if you weren’t allowed to trust your own. I’m no psychologist but I hear plenty of stories from adults who remember falling asleep at the table because they weren’t allowed to leave until the peas were gone, or being served the congealed corned beef as their only meal for three days until it was eaten.
I know some of these people’s parents and they seem perfectly lovely and loving people who thought this was the right way to approach food refusal. There’s a good chance, though, that either this older group experienced scarce food as children or they were raised by people who did. It’s a kind of generational trauma.
Feeding children is emotional
That’s not the only explanation though. I was lucky enough to miss that kind of willpower test over food because I missed out on almost the entire experience of shared family meals since we didn’t ever eat together when I was a child except at Christmas.
Like a lot of things to do with love, it’s not the slightest bit rational!
And yet, I still found myself disbelieving what my kids’ appetites were telling them. I’d only ever had mild pressure – a bit of disappointment if I returned a plate (from bedroom eating) without finishing everything. Besides, we had chooks and dogs and cats and there was always somewhere for the scraps to go so I don’t recall it ever being a big issue.
I fell more into the food-is-love model. I realised I was fiercely worried about their health if they didn’t want to eat and when I tracked back to the source of that worry, the most powerful emotion was rejection. Dug out from the deep dark shadows of my soul, it goes something like this:
- I love my child
- I have shown them love by nurturing them with food since conception
- If they reject my food, aren’t they rejecting my love too?
Yep. Because like a lot of things to do with love, it’s not the slightest bit rational!
You can read more about my research into this compulsion to overfeed our kids and how it played out in my family in the Portion Distortion section of the Serve chapter in The Flawsome Family Mealbook, from about page 70 forward.
Working with inconvenience
Many of the remaining reasons boil down to our own adult convenience – and you know what? That’s okay! Convenience is a real factor in keeping a family running and keeping your workload reasonable and teaching children they are one part of a whole unit – not the entitled wee prince or princess boss of the world.
While this might seem like the most practical and therefore easiest of the issues we can overcome, I think it’s harder than the psychological ones! Fortunately, a long list of clinical dietitians other experts before us have come up with many approaches worth trying to support children’s natural appetites while maintaining a family approach to meals and sharing/convenience.
Understanding and acting
I don’t believe there’s any single and correct approach to help understand and trust a child’s appetite – there will be different circumstances for every family and every child, However, here are some good sites or articles about children’s appetites I’ve found and I suggest you check out two or three and try a few different things over time.
- Ellyn Satter Institute – Division of Responsibility
- Ellyn Satter Institute – ‘Trust your child’s appetite’
- Sarah Remmer, 10 reasons your child isn’t eating and how to fix them
- Australian Gov brochure on children’s serving sizes
- Raising Children Network – understanding ‘tummy talk’
- Support – not sabotage – for children’s appetites (a picky eating advice site)
- A medical view of ‘appetite slumps’ in young children
I find it a bit scary how many ‘experts’ there are claiming they can help you increase your child’s appetite without ever acknowledging your child may be telling the truth about their hunger. See my notes above about overfeeding being a much bigger problem than underfeeding! Unlike much of the ‘child won’t eat’ advice out there, the above resources will help you understand and appreciate your child’s gift of appetite!
As always, if you’re worried your child’s eating habits are affecting their health please check with your GP first.