Thursday, June 3, 2010

What is a "good eater?"

My almost 5 yo daughter out of the blue the other night said, "Daddy, good job eating!" My jaw dropped. I can ASSURE you she has never heard anything like that in our home. I imagine this is something someone has said to her at school, perhaps a grandparent, though with all my gentle (mostly) reminders about letting her decide how much to eat, I doubt it was them.

I said, "Why do you think Daddy did a good job?" M replied, "Because his plate is empty."
I was getting up to refill our serving bowls and said, "That doesn't mean he's a good eater. Eating isn't good or bad, you have meals and snacks and eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, even if your plate isn't empty..."

I hope I am not witnessing the well-studied phenomena that children under 5 will stop when they are full, regardless of the initial portion served, while children 5 and older will finish the entire portion served them, even if it is much more than they would have eaten if they had served themselves.

This notion of praising for eating, or relying on external cues for when to stop eating is not OK with me.

Also, I am curious, Gentle Readers. At what age does a "good eater" go from being a child who will clean their plate, to being a someone who will leave food behind or stop eating before they are satisfied? Crazy, crazy world we live in.


  1. I think it depends entirely on body shape. If someone is perceived to be fat, then most people will assume they are eating "too much" and ought to eat less, even if that means feeling hungry. If someone is not perceived to be fat, then any amount of food is morally acceptable for an adult (although they might have to make some kind of glib remark to explain downing an entire pizza, especially if female). I think non-fat children are praised for eating everything because of one of two attitudes: the "there are children starving in Africa" mentality that food MUST BE EATEN or else it is wasted, and the belief that children are such picky eaters that we, as adults, must MAKE them eat a varied diet or else they will quickly become malnourished. What do you think about this?

  2. I think you make some great points. You also bring up a biggie-gender. There is a recognized gender bias in the way parents perceive their girls vs boys. In general many parents want big, sturdy boys, and small girls. I think the general belief that adults try to control a child's intake is that adults don't think that children can be trusted to know how much to eat and how to get variety. (I rephrased your thought on malnourishment.) I think you're on track with that comment. In general parents need to know that it's perfectly normal for kids to eat tiny amounts at some meals and snacks and large amounts at others. A but of education on basic development, growth and eating patterns would go a long way I believe in helping parents relax, trust their children with knowing how much to eat and children would do better (with structure and family meals.)

  3. How interesting that 5 is the age that kids become more "visual" eaters (i.e. use serving portions to determine fullness instead of body cues).

    I have this whole half-baked theory in my head about how the "clean-plate club" that my mother espoused was one trigger for my later dieting woes. In fact, many weight loss programs advocate that you only fill your (smaller sized) plate once and that's it. Which meant, for me anyway, that I would jam tons of food on my plate because I was perpetually worried that I would not get enough. I only recently realized, through working with a Satter-trained nutritionist, that I have hung on to so many of those dieting behaviors into my 40s, when I have decisively stopped dieting (including drinking diet sodas, dressing on the side, the one-serving theory, and vilifying desserts). It's been such a relief to let those old ideas go.


  4. Making kids finish food when they are not hungry over time subverts their ability to listen to cues of hunger and fullness. I bet it had something to do with your later issues. You bring up a key word. WORRY. When small children are restricted they worry and get anxious that they won't get enough food which leads to eating quickly, stuffing food, "overeating," and food obsessions. I am so happy you have found relief! Makes me want to work all the harder to help parents of small children who are restricting children out of love or concern, or doctor's orders! Think of all the years of suffering that could be prevented!