VERY often we hear ourselves channelling our parents when dealing with our children. When it comes to mealtimes, chances are if you grew up hearing the terms "don't waste food" and "make sure to clear your plate", you now echo those very words.
Encouraging kids to eat nutritional food at mealtimes while at the same time avoiding food waste is commendable. But if we coax children to clear their plates, are we really helping them, or are we potentially creating long-term problems for them, and for their relationship with food?
"There is a mentality of eating everything on your plate to be polite and avoid wastage," says Aveen Bannon, dietician and founder of Dublin Nutrition Centre. "But what we should be teaching our children is to learn to eat to appetite, and we ourselves should learn to serve appropriate servings."
So instead of providing larger than necessary portions and then insisting children finish everything, we should start small, and trust the kids.
"Young children have an innate ability to know when they are full, but we sometimes encourage them to override those body signals. We all need to get back in tune with our bodies and know when we've had enough," says dietetic consultant Paula Mee.
"Children up to the age of three have been shown to be very good at knowing when they are full. And we should allow them to decide that. As parents, our role is to provide the right types of food. We are responsible for quality, they are responsible for quantity," she adds.
This makes perfect sense, and has much in common with the mantra "eat when you're hungry and stop when you're full" that many of us try to follow ourselves. Yet we don't always apply the same logic when feeding our children. So why do we insist that our children keep eating when they've had enough?
Throughout most of history, food has been scarce, and parental feeding practices have developed around this. Today, food is in much more plentiful supply, but many of the traditional practices have remained, such as urging children to eat as much as possible at mealtimes, when food is available. If we as children were told not to waste food, and reminded frequently of "starving children in Africa", we are likely to pass that message to our own children.
There is also a strong sense of caretaking linked to preparing and serving food. It feels good as a parent to dish up something healthy and wholesome, and watch our children eat. But all of this well-meant encouragement could be sending confusing signals to our children, or worse, leading to obesity later on.
"Many factors can lead to obesity, one of which is continuing to eat despite being full, and consuming unnecessary calories," says Bannon.
Effectively, if we teach our children to keep eating despite being full, they won't learn to follow appetite cues. And they may continue the habit of eating unnecessarily as they grow up. But what about the child who says he's full, then comes looking for toast 20 minutes later?
"If a child looks for something to eat within an hour of finishing their dinner, I will offer them their dinner again," says Bannon. "They will learn that it is easier to eat what is given at dinnertime, despite not liking it as much as other foods, if there is no alternative."
Children are individuals, and appetites vary. "Bring a child to have them checked on a centile chart if you're worried about them, rather than pushing food on them," says Mee. "Children must learn to eat to appetite."
Eating to appetite doesn't mean that food is wasted; if we as parents buy less and cook less, we can avoid waste, and do so in a way that is far better for our children than pleading with them to clear their plates.
Encouraging positive eating habits
•Give children smaller portions or allow them to serve themselves, and use smaller plates
•Encourage children to eat slowly and to stop eating once they are full, so they don't consume unnecessary calories
•Ensure children drink water during the day, to avoid mistaking thirst for hunger
•While it's counter-productive to insist children eat everything on the plate, it is a good idea to encourage them to at least try everything
•Eat together as a family if at all possible, and avoid television during mealtimes
•For fussy eaters, introduce water half way through the meal, so they don't fill up on fluids.