I remember sitting at the dinner table and having my mom eye me while I was pushing around a the last morsels on my plate with my fork.
“Eat your dinner. Some people don’t have food!” she’d exclaim.
She knew what she was talking about. My immigrant parents instilled in me a sense of gratitude for what was hard won—like having a roof over your head and food on your plate. And, yep, that meant eating everything that was served on that plate. Now that I’m a mom myself, I know the lesson my parents sought to teach, and it’s a noble one.
But I take a different approach when it comes to my own child.
Here’s the issue: It’s important to raise kids with healthy habits, because the habits we form as children endure into adolescence and adulthood. That was certainly the case in my own life. One healthy habit is knowing when to stop eating when we’re full. If we force kids to go beyond that point—cleaning their plates on demand—we throw off their natural hunger and fullness cues.
They’re no longer eating based on how they feel, they’re eating based on how their parents feel.
You can see how this can get complicated fast. Family dinner time is less a time to share and be together, and more about goading children to finish all their food. Food becomes fraught with emotion and meeting expectations. You might grow up feeling it’s bad manners to decline food. Kids might routinely experience discomfort after eating and assume that’s normal. They might not discover they have certain food sensitivities—I know people who didn’t learn they were lactose- or gluten-intolerant until they were adults.
It goes against my mom instincts—that place deep within us that compels us to feed everyone we love—but I try to remain steadfast.
Moms know the amount of food a child eats varies from day to day. Sometimes my kid wants ALL the strawberries. Sometimes she wants none. Sometimes she eats everything I serve her, sometimes she just nibbles. It goes against my mom instincts—that place deep within us that compels us to feed everyone we love—but I try to remain steadfast.
My pediatrician agreed, saying we should think of our child’s nutrition in terms of a healthy week overall. In other words, don’t get bogged down on any one particular meal. This advice can save a mom's sanity during a child's picky phase, for sure.
My rules are simple: First, kids get a kid-appropriate portion. Second, they don’t have to eat everything, but I won’t offer a different or additional food until the next meal time. Our mealtimes tend to be pretty regular: Breakfast at 8 a.m., lunch at noon and dinner at 5 p.m with a light snack offered in between. Bedtime by 8 p.m. By sticking to a schedule, kids are more likely to eat well at mealtimes, because they didn’t fill up on a bunch of snacks over the course of the day.
Understanding the connection between food and energy is something that took me a long time to understand but will, hopefully, be instinctual for my daughter.
When offering snacks, I try to make sure the portion won’t rival our next meal. Apple slices, grapes, a few tortilla chips with hummus, yogurt, pretzel sticks with peanut butter—all favorites in our home and any one of which can fit nicely between lunch and dinner. I also pack snacks and extra water for days when we’re expending much more energy than usual, e.g. zoo trips, play dates at the park, long walks.
Understanding the connection between food and energy is something that took me a long time to understand but will, hopefully, be instinctual for my daughter. By wanting to make sure she’d develop healthy habits, I ended up developing some of my own.
My last "rule" is that while food is fuel, it's also a pleasure to enjoy. That means spending time together preparing meals, trying fun recipes and sitting at the table together sans technology. Kids can and should indulge in a special treat from time to time, and being able to do that as part of a balanced approach to eating overall keeps everyone happy.
Because I’m my mother’s daughter, I minimize our home’s food waste in other ways: grocery shopping with a meal plan, cooking what we have on hand in the fridge and pantry, and making meals that keep well in the fridge for another day or so. My parents’ lesson still rings true—I just practice it in a different way.