Does this sound familiar? “Eat everything on your plate – or you won’t grow up to be big and strong.” Or, “Finish your meal – there are kids starving in Africa.”
A lot of us grew up with our parents delivering these mantras at the dinner table. (I never understood the bit about kids starving in Africa – what difference did my dietary habits make to them?)
For generations, parents have encouraged their kids to finish everything on the plate, partly because they want to make sure their children are getting the nutrients and sustenance they need – but also because they possibly feel guilty about food going to waste.
If you grew up, like I did, with parents who were kids during the war and in the austere years immediately afterwards, that message was likely to be even more strongly reinforced. We were told we didn’t know how lucky we were – we should feel grateful that we had plenty of food and eat every last morsel.
But now dietary experts say the “eat everything up” message is fuelling the obesity epidemic affecting kids today.
Research carried out at the University of Minnesota in the US found that parents nagging their offspring to eat up means some children are unable to tell when they are full.
Instead of learning to recognise signals from their stomachs and stopping, they munch their way through what is put in front of them, downing every last bit, even if they are sated. And because portion sizes today are much bigger, kids can end up eating far more food than they can burn off.
Add in the fact that our diets include much more calorie-laden and processed food, and that’s a recipe for weight-gain and health problems further down the track.
“If you encourage kids to rely on environmental indicators, like how much food is on their plates, or the time of day, they’ll lose the ability to rely on internal cues to know whether they’re hungry or full,” says dietician Katie Loth, who worked on the study.
The findings also revealed that fathers were more likely to pressure their children into eating all their food than mothers, and that teenage boys were more likely to be hassled to finish
meals than teenage girls.
Meanwhile, other paediatric experts claim parents are so used to seeing overweight children, we find it hard to judge whether our kids are a reasonable weight or not.
Dr Michael Hobaugh, the chief of medical staff at La Rabida Children’s Hospital in Chicago, told the website HealthDay that childhood obesity is now so widespread, parents of a child who is of normal weight may think they are too skinny.
“But if a paediatrician charts that child’s height and weight, he or she may even be overweight,” he says.
TIPS TO HELP PREVENT OVEREATING
- Use smaller plates. Don’t starve your kids, but help them get used to slightly smaller portion sizes.
- Encourage them to eat slowly. It takes time for the message about being full to get from your stomach to your brain, and they are likely to eat more than they need if they bolt down their food quickly.
- Don’t bribe them with, “If you eat all your meal, you can have dessert.” Not only may they end up eating more of their main meal than they need, but then they’ll also scoff a sweet treat they definitely don’t need, because they love the idea of being rewarded.
- Dish up the meals in the kitchen rather than leaving food on the table so they can help themselves to seconds. If they really need more they can have it, but they’re less likely to be tempted by food they don’t need if it isn’t sitting in front of them.
- Don’t restrict certain dishes. Children need food from all the groups – protein, carbohydrates and fats. If they are lacking in something at dinner time, they may try and make up for it later with unhealthy sweet treats or snacks.
- If they say they are full, don’t say, “Just a few more mouthfuls” – unless they’ve barely touched their veges or other healthy food. By all means encourage them to have more veges if they haven’t had many, but if they’ve already downed pasta or steak, don’t force them to eat every last bit.