My kids often come to the kitchen just as I start cooking dinner. They’re looking for something to shove in their mouth for instant gratification. I tell them, “Dinner’s coming.”
They complain and sometimes cry.
I listen to them, tell them I understand they’re upset.
I offer some water.
“I know you’re hungry, dinner will be ready soon.”
They open the fridge. There’s nothing in there they can pop in their mouths.
They complain some more, maybe cry more. I listen, without scolding them.
They have to wait.
But, when dinner is ready, we all sit together at the table and they eat. And man, do they EAT.
It’s so peaceful. They say “Oh yummy, mama! Thank you!” I don’t have trouble keeping them at the table because they’re too busy indiscriminately scarfing down their food. Almost everything I put in front of them, they eat. I rarely hear a complaint.
If they never feel hunger, how can they enjoy the taste of their food?
If my kids graze all day, they may or may not want to eat a meal, and if they do eat. If they do eat, after a day of grazing, they usually take two bites and run off to play. Meal rejection is frustrating to me. I’m not a control freak, I feed my kids about five meals a day, but I do have my limits. For one, I know that what children eat and the way they eat, is important to the way that they grow and develop. Kids don’t get a great deal of warmth and nutrition from walking around grazing all day (even healthy grazing). Also, when my kids won’t eat a meal, my effort of creating nourishing food, feels wasted. If they reject too many meals in a row, I start to get resentful over my wasted effort.
Letting my kids ‘get‘ hungry, should not be confused with letting them ‘go‘ hungry. It’s NEVER ok to punish a child by withholding food or to shame or make fun of a child for eating ‘too much‘.
I don’t encourage grazing and I won’t make them something special half an hour before dinner is going to be ready. After I clean up the kitchen at night, the ‘kitchen’s closed. I won’t prepare meal after meal all day. I don’t make special meals either. They eat what we eat (unless I honestly screw up dinner). I do my best to meet everyone’s needs, including my own need of feeling honored in the kitchen.
We do have snacks in the house sometimes, and when we do, the kids are allowed to eat them at free will. Allowing children to learn how to self regulate their diet is completely possible, and my kids get plenty of opportunities to do so.
But, once the snacks are gone, they’re gone and the snacks don’t get replenished until we go to the grocery store next, or if I bake something. If they choose to eat all the snacks in one go, it might be a week before they see snacks again. Or, they can ration the snacks out. It’s their choice.
People tell me that they just can’t deal with the whining and grumpiness of a hungry child and I totally understand. It’s annoying and sometimes even I can’t deal with it. But, a child that is ONLY hungry, will simply come looking for food, without crying and screaming for it. The tantrum part comes from other emotional distress, but we end up giving food as a remedy for some unhappiness that is not always related to the hunger.
If we offer food to make an upset child feel happy, then over time, could we accidentally be teaching a child that food has the ability to make you feel better when you’re upset? By not validating a child’s emotions and instead, offering food, what are we teaching our kids? Comfort eating is a real problem that many children and adults suffer from. When my kids get hungry and grumpy, I address the hunger and the emotions separately. Of course, I feed them as soon as the emotional storm is past. Anyway, it’s not good to eat when you’re upset…
Every child is different and they each have different dietary requirements depending on the day. Some kids eat like a bird and others eat like a horse. And, sometimes the kid who usually eats like a bird needs to eat like a horse on a particular day or vice versa. Although it takes some time, giving food with awareness is something that I’ve gotten better at. Listening to a child’s true needs, rather than just offering food to prevent a temper tantrum is truly ‘listening‘ to our children.
Letting a child get a little hungry, builds their desire to eat their food with awareness. Opposites are complimentary. If you never feel hungry, how can you ever enjoy your food?
For an aware parent perspective on why kids are picky eaters, I wrote an article on that here.
This post is meant to be read with common sense. If a child had special dietary considerations (diabetic) you have to consider their health needs. This post is intended for children with no special dietary considerations and is not an excuse to withhold food from a child.