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?

Back on the Horse (After Finishing My Course)

Several years ago, one of my physicians had a nurse who always smelled very strongly of cigarettes. Every time I saw her, I wondered how she could smoke when she worked in healthcare (yes, I know that many healthcare professionals smoke). She is well aware of the health consequences of smoking, right? And isn’t it part of her job to be a positive example of healthy living to her patients? 

A couple of weeks ago, I finally fulfilled my goal of becoming a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN). This required nearly four years of online coursework, followed by an 8-month internship and a comprehensive exam. It was such an educational and fulfilling experience; however, I would not say it was the healthiest time in my life. 

Going to school full-time with three young kids is a lot of work. While I did my best to maintain a healthy lifestyle throughout the process of becoming credentialed, stress often got the best of me. As a result, I placed some of my habits on the back burner. Handful of chips to get me through a study sesh? Yes, please. Sacrificing sleep in pursuit of an A? You betcha. 

I found myself thinking again about my old nurse friend, and about how I could, to some extent, understand how she could partake in such an unhealthy behavior. Here I was, training to educate people about how to nourish their bodies in the most healthy way, sometimes engaging in behaviors that I would not recommend to my future clients.

Now that the dietetics school pressure valve has been released, I am looking forward to relaxing a bit and working on being my healthiest possible self (and raising my healthiest possible family, of course!). 

Here are my priorities for getting back on track: 

Cleaning my kitchen. 

My cluttered kitchen counters. 

My cluttered kitchen counters. 

 

Do you ever overeat when you feel like aspects of your life are out of control? Recent research from Cornell University discussed the link between overeating and clutter. Researchers in the study compared snacking behavior among female participants who were offered crackers, cookies, and carrots in a messy, chaotic kitchen, compared to female participants who were offered the same snack foods in a tidy kitchen. In this study, participants in the cluttered, noisy kitchen ate 65 more calories from cookies than those in the calm eating environment. (1)

Sixty-five calories may seem insignificant; however, if a person ate 65 extra calories per day for one year, she could gain up to 6.8 pounds, depending on other factors like exercise! The researchers suggest that disorder and chaos create a sense that a person is not in control, and that some people tend to indulge more when they perceive that a situation is not within their control.

I admit that decluttering was not high on my priority list during my internship. My kitchen is always a little cluttered and very, very noisy, with three little ones running around. If cleaning it up a bit will help me to be a healthier eater, then that will be time well-spent. Plus, it will help with the second item on my to-do list... 

Planning and preparing. 

Pre-dietetics school, when I lost close to 40 pounds, one of my keys to success was to plan my meals. A 2011 study supports this, and indicates that planning meals in advance is a strong predictor of intake during the meal. (2) In other words, making decisions on the fly about what to eat and how much may come back to bite you in the you-know-what. 

Cleaning out the kitchen allows you to better know what ingredients you have available, so that you can begin building your meal plan. Here are some tips to get you started on meal planning. 

Measuring it out. 

As a nutrition practitioner, I am very familiar with the recommended portion sizes for a variety of foods. Theory and practice, however, are two very different things. If you put a massive bag of Cheetos in front of me, do you think I can eat just 21 of them? No way, dude. On the flip side, if I walk past the fridge and grab a small handful of baby carrots, does that count as one serving toward the recommended 5-9 servings a day? 

Research strongly supports portion control as a means of controlling weight. Measuring portions can also help ensure that you are getting enough of the right nutrients in your diet each day. 

Do you have to measure everything you eat every time you eat it? Not at all. But it is very helpful to measure your foods for a couple of weeks to see what a proper portion looks like, and to revisit this strategy every so often so that you stay on track. 

Unwinding.

Stress is such a doozy. In addition to making you feel terrible in general, it has the potential to seriously mess up your metabolism. Research suggests that stress increases cravings for sugar and fat (3), slows the metabolism (4), and increases insulin resistance (4). 

Now that I have more time and fewer responsibilities, I am working on dialing back the stress level by getting plenty of sleep, doing the workouts that I love (Crossfit, trail running, and rock climbing), and building in downtime away from the computer and phone. 

Focusing on progress, not perfection. 

There is an old saying that perfect is the enemy of good. As a perfectionist, I sometimes struggle to make changes in my life because I fear that I will not do it just right. I’ve come to realize there is no “just right” in healthy living, and that making a few small positive changes is far superior to doing nothing at all. 

Do you feel like you need to become healthier but don’t know where to start? Just set one achievable goal. Decide to exercise for 30 minutes a day, or to eat 5 servings of vegetables, and stick with it. You will be better for it, and your success in making that change will empower you to make other healthy choices. 

What about you? What do you do when you feel like you’ve gotten off track? 

Sources: 

1. Vartanian LR, Kernan KM, Wansink B. Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments.Clutter, Chaos, and Overconsumption: The Role of Mind-Set in Stressful and Chaotic Food Environments. 2016. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2711870. Accessed June 20, 2016.

2. Fay SH, Ferriday D, Hinton EC, Shakeshaft NG, Rogers PJ, Brunstrom JM. What determines real-world meal size? Evidence for pre-meal planning.Appetite. 2011;56(2):284-289. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2011.01.006.

3. Harvard Medical School. Why stress causes people to overeat - Harvard Health. Harvard Health Publications. http://www.health.harvard.edu/newsletter_article/why-stress-causes-people-to-overeat. Published February 2012. Accessed June 27, 2016.

4. Kiecolt-Glaser JK, Habash DL, Fagundes CP, et al. Daily Stressors, Past Depression, and Metabolic Responses to High-Fat Meals: A Novel Path to Obesity. Biological Psychiatry. 2015;77(7):653-660. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.biopsych.2014.05.018.