Appetite is complex and has it origins in early life experiences with food.
Breast milk contains hormones (leptin) which control appetite and satiety. This is one of the things which are thought to contribute the lower rates of obesity in infants who have been breast fed.
Most people’s long term goal is to have children who are hungry at meal times and join in family meals and are willing eaters, keen to try new things and enthusiastic about food. This leads to healthy adults who know when they are full and are excited about eating a variety of healthy, fresh foods. The goal is for children to learn to listen to their own body’s appetite and as older children and adults, finish eating when they are full, even if there is food left over or an open block of chocolate etc.
So how do we do this.? Think carefully about your own attitude to food and how you were parented in this area. Were you frequently encouraged to finish your plate, even though you were full? Many of our own attitudes to food and meal times come from intergenerational family cultures and habits. For example in many families people (often men) are encouraged to finish up everything on the table at meals. This often is handed down from times when food was very scarce and it was necessary not to waste anything.
We often feel the same when we have prepared a nutritious meal for our little one and then they appear to waste half of it
Obesity and over eating is much more of a problem in our society amongst adults than low weight. Children thrive and develop healthy appetites and attitudes to food when the are able to manage their own appetite, and learn to know when they are hungry and when to stop eating.
Here are some guides or ideas to help develop healthy eating habits as a family:
-When possible, make meal times a family event, everyone available sits together and eats.
- There are no toys or screens at the table and the focus is food and connection.
- Model good eating for your children – eat slowly with obvious appreciation of what you’re eating. Always sit down to eat.
- As soon as possible involve your child in some form of food preparation before meals
- Allow children to eat to their appetite, if they are obviously resisting after only 1/4 of the plate, allow them to stop eating.
- In older children/ encourage to stay at the table for a period (for social reasons) but try to resist encouraging them to finish everything on their plate.
- Don’t offer food again once meal time is over, apart from the routine seated snack times. (Toddlers need the opportunity to feel hungry and look forward to eating.)
- Try to avoid the pitfall of hand food for toddling infants as they cruise around the house. In addition to making a big mess, this doesn’t allow them to focus on eating or learn their own appetite.
-Trust your healthy toddler’s appetite. They may not want to eat much some days but other days they will eat more. Toddlers like us, have variable appetite. Some days they are really hungry and the next day may not feel like eating much.
-Think about portion size. A toddlers stomach is really tiny, so put a realistic amount of food on their plate. It can feel overwhelming to have enough food to fill your stomach 3 times placed in front of you.
-Toddlers can be fickle with food preferences. Just because your baby has refused avocado 3 times does not mean they are wired to hate avocado and will never eat it. No need to insist the eat it but keep including it in their food and model eating it in front of them. One day they will start eating it.
Remember in all societies eating is about connection. Every single feed prior to starting solids is done while held close to another’s body.
My youngest son would often need to sit with me or on me at the beginning of his solid journey. He would also by default try to ‘’latch on” to any round shaped food, which was often quite entertaining to watch. Even when he got older if tired or uncertain at meal times he would stretch a hand out and hold part of my arm while eating. Eating should always be about family connection. We know that families who eat together do better in all sorts of ways. Children who are involved in making food from an early age, are more likely to try new foods.
My youngest now eats independently of course and is a committed foodie. He loves things I would actually rather he disliked - expensive, smelly cheeses, anything with truffles, for example. He is still unsure about Jerusalem artichokes and celeriac but I am working on those!
My eldest son is going flatting next year and one of my proudest achievements as a mother is that he is a highly competent cook with a big repertoire of meals and now moving on to experimenting with creating his own dishes.