4 Feeding Lessons You Can Learn from Your Dainty Lil' Eater

One of the most common questions I hear when people learn that I am both a mom and a dietitian is, “Should I worry that my kid doesn’t eat very much?” Friends, I have been there.

It can be scary when a little one develops a dainty appetite. You worry about her growth, and (if you tend a bit toward extremes, like me) whether there may be some illness keeping her from eating. Sometimes, these concerns are very valid. But most of the time, this is a normal phenomenon in otherwise healthy kids. In fact, we could even learn a few feeding lessons from our children!

Let’s talk about that for a bit! Read on for 4 feeding lessons you can learn from your kiddos. And for you parents that are a little nervous about your child’s small appetite, I’ll give you some behaviors to watch out for and nip in the bud. But first, a little background. 

If you know my family, you may know that my firstborn is my picky eater. She’s made tremendous strides in the past year or so, but I used to be terrified that she would starve to death.As you can see, she was a very enthusiastic breastfeeder. But once we transitioned to solids, girlfriend just would. Not. EAT.

 My pickiest eater--the early days.

My pickiest eater--the early days.

(My pickiest eater--the early days)

I raised this concern with my pediatrician at little bit’s 2-year checkup (this was at the very beginning of dietetics school, before I learned all this stuff). He gave me some excellent advice:

“It’s not a big deal if she eats. It’s also not a big deal if she doesn’t eat.”

My initial reaction was, “WTF?!? How can it not be a big deal if she doesn’t eat?” Then it dawned on me. She will eat when she is hungry.

When you think about it, babies are some of the most intuitive, mindful eaters out there. For the most part, they will let you know when they are hungry and will eat just enough to satisfy that hunger. If you’ve ever had babies, you know that they tend to eat every 20 minutes during growth spurts because their bodies need the energy. Fast forward a few years. My daughter still eats like a bird sometimes, only to be followed by stretches when I am sure she is going to eat us out of house and home. Two weeks later, all of her pants are too short.

My point is, some kids are more attuned to their natural hunger cues than adults.

So what feeding lessons can we learn from those smart little cookies?

1.         Stop eating when you are no longer hungry.

Did you grow up in a household in which you were encouraged to clean your plate? This mentality sends the message that one should eat beyond the point of satiety (which means satisfaction, by the way).

I recently noticed that my 4-year-old will eat a few bites and they tell me she’s not hungry. This is what you should be doing as well! Rather than eating to the point of fullness, eat until you no longer feel hungry.

This is a skill that takes a lot of practice. You may find that it’s easier to undershoot and have to eat a little bit more later. That’s okay—it’s worth it! It is a mindful eating practice that leads to better physical health, as well as a better emotional relationship with food down the road.

2.         Eat on kid plates.

Still having trouble quitting Clean Plate Club? Steal your kids’ plates!

A often-cited study of plate size showed that people eating cereal out of larger bowls ate 16% more cereal than those who ate out of smaller bowls. Moreover, the large bowl group believed they were eating less than the small bowl group.

Serve your meals on smaller plates--ones that are 9 inches in diameter (the size of a standard paper plate) or smaller. Feel free to serve your veggies on large plates, though! We could all stand to eat more of those. Feel free to pass that feeding lesson along to your kids--they'll love it :). 

3.         Slow down.

I admittedly get frustrated when we are in a hurry to get somewhere and my kids are taking FOREVER to eat their breakfast. But guess what—they are doing it right! Receptors in the stomach communicate with the brain when the stomach is stretched. In turn, the brain releases hormones that signal satiety and fullness. This process takes time!

If you tend to overeat and have kids that dilly dally, try to match their pace for a meal or two. This may mean getting up a bit earlier in the morning, or dialing back the clock on dinner hour. If this seems like a pain, keep in mind that it may make you more likely to share family meals, which is a healthy eating practice itself!

4.         Stay busy. 

Have you ever told your kiddo, “You need to eat lunch before you play!” en route to a birthday party? Yep, guilty.

One of the reasons why mindful eating can be so difficult is that we place so much emotional value on food! We save ourselves from being outcasts at parties by migrating toward the buffet. The party MVP is always the one who brings the best dip. Heck, we plan entire holidays around food!

This is one of the great feeding lessons you can learn from your kid. Find something else to do. If you are at a social engagement, see if you can help with something. If you're at home, play with your kids or tackle a small project you’ve been putting off. It could save you from eating when you aren’t truly hungry.

See how your kids may be outsmarting you in the eating department (in a good way)?

Now, sometimes parents have legitimate reasons to be concerned about how much their child is eating. Here are some behaviors that warrant a call to the pediatrician:

1.         Low appetite in an underweight child.

I can appreciate your concern if your kid has a small appetite and your doctor (as opposed to a nosey auntie) has indicated he is underweight for age and height!  

Once your pediatrician rules out any underlying health issues, she may refer you to a dietitian to suggest some more energy-dense (but still healthy) foods to move toward a healthier body weight. This might help your child to increase calories while taking in the amount of food he desires.

2.         Excessive weight gain.

While this post has highlighted some silver linings of a seemingly low appetite, some kiddos do tend to overeat.

If your child has a very healthy appetite and is overweight (or seems to be gaining significant weight), it is definitely worth mentioning to a doctor. She can monitor growth, and she or a dietitian can help your family to make a plan to prevent further gain.

3.         Concerns about body image.

It makes me so sad to hear children of any age express concerns about “being fat.”

In both my dietetics education and my previous career in nutrition community outreach, I have been surprised by the prevalence of low body image in kids of all age. If your child isn’t eating much and is also making concerning comments about her body, PLEASE seek help from your pediatrician. It is very important to address these concerns as early as possible.

4.         Low appetite with other physical symptoms. 

Finally, if your kiddo isn’t eating much and has a fever, complains of aches or pains, seems tired or lethargic, or just isn’t himself, definitely give your doctor a ring! He may have an infection or virus that needs attention.

What do you think, parents? Have you ever picked up any clever feeding lessons from your kids?