Copyright Meryl Schenker

Is your toddler eating enough?

“You’re full? But you didn’t eat very much.”

“Just two more bites, OK?”

“Finish everything on your plate and then you can have dessert.”

Our intentions are good. But in bribing–or pleading, chasing, commenting, shaming, or hovering–the message we’re really sending is unintended:

Ignore your body’s signals for hunger and fullness. Ignore your body’s natural ability to regulate food intake.

That can’t lead to a healthy relationship with food.

(Bonus download at the end: 6 Rules for Feeding Kids)

The Ellyn Satter Institute, after years of research on “eating competence,” developed the Division of Responsibility. It goes like this:

We’re in charge of what, when, and where our kids eat.

It’s our kids’ job to decide whether they eat and how much they eat.

What to eat is hard enough to settle on. But it’s particularly tough to let go of whether and how much. People seem preoccupied with how much food our kid is eating–from grandparents to babysitters and bystanders we don’t even know–and we are, too. Lately I’ve been on high alert, listening for these messages about eating, and it’s surprising how prevalent they are. Especially proddings to eat more.

But, unless you’re living in poverty, that particular obsession is nearly always unnecessary.

A friend of mine doing her medical-school rotation in pediatrics (after years of working to help families with obese children) says she and the attending pediatrician would place bets: When parents came in worrying that their 2- or 3-year-old wasn’t eating enough, which weight percentile would the child be in? The 90th percentile? Or the 95th?

My friend wants all of us to see the dip in these clinical charts. They show normal body mass index (BMI)-for-age, from the Centers for Disease Control, for ages 2 to 20:

stripslashes(strstr(" ", "class=") ? "" : "")girls-bmi-for-age stripslashes(strstr(" ", "class=") ? "" : "")boys-bmi-for-age

Between about ages 2 and 5, kids need less food. So they want to eat less food.

We can rest assured: It’s safe for us to stop cajoling them, sitting with the next spoonful in front of their faces while they’re still chewing (I’m looking at you, dear hubby), cheering their every bite, and so on. At every age, there’s a natural variation of about 20% in the amount of food children want to eat from one day to the next. (Same with us, too.) So it does more harm than good to comment or shame when our kids seem less hungry or more hungry than usual.

Instead, our words can help them stay in touch with their body’s signals: “You know how much food you need.” “You know what you like.”

But what if your kid is just clearly distracted, which is so common around 18 months? They take a bite and then run off to play. Repeat, repeat. This age-appropriate mealtime etiquette is something you may be able to roll with. Most times, though, you just want your kid to sit still for five minutes and eat, partly because there’s no time for dinner to take two hours.

Here’s a little boundary-setting exercise you might try, clipped from my book: stripslashes(strstr(" ", "class=") ? "" : "")Dinnertime tip from Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science Distracted (lack of) eating still happens occasionally in my house, at age 4 1/2. If we’re having a large and loud dinner party, especially, I know the environment is too distracting for my daughter to focus on her own. Not her fault. I might sit her on my lap for a few minutes and do “one bite for you, one bite for me.” Otherwise, my go-to phrases are:

“You want to play! And, oh dear, dinner time won’t last much longer. Must be something you can do.” (More on that 3-part wording.)

“If you are still hungry, now is a good time to eat. We will have food again at snack time.”

And “Dinner is over, so we’ll eat again in the morning.”

Just the facts, ma’am.

Bonus download: 6 Rules for Feeding Kids

6 rules for feeding kids

Copyright Betty Udesen / Pear Press
Written by

Tracy Cutchlow

Tracy is the author of the international bestseller Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science, a public speaker, and a creator of places to speak and be heard. Sign up for her newsletter here.

3 thoughts on “Is your toddler eating enough?

  1. Thanks for this useful post. I didn’t click for a few days because I was over saturated with images of healthy white children…. I wonder if you’d consider including images of children of color in the postings occasionally?

  2. Thanks, still one of my favourite posts on toddler’s eating habits. Question – during that ‘training habits’ period ie sitting in high chair, how much or how little did your daughter eat since she didnt get to eat how she wanted? Should we just let it be so she gets the message? Didnt you then have to deal with her crying of hunger in the middle of the night? Thanks

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