I was a depressive baby and I learned very early that if I didn’t eat what was on my plate, my brothers and sisters would be more than happy to relieve me of my share. When food is scarce, children soon learn to eat what is available. The point is that fussy eating is a symptom of affluence. It is only when there is an abundance of food, and food choices, that fussy eating becomes a problem. It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, but so too does abundance. Supermarkets are so loaded with foods of all kinds that we tend to devalue our need for the source of our bodily energy; it is because we devalue our need for food that it takes on symbolic significance and is used to meet our emotional (rather than our nutritional) needs. If food was scarce and we really valued it, we would do what we should do. And what we should do, as soon as children are able to eat for themselves, is to put their food on a plate and if they don’t eat it, take it away and not give anymore food until the next meal.
Children will eat when they are hungry. But too often we let food become a means for our children to exert control over us. Children are small and relatively helpless and they don’t like to be in that position. When we show concern about what or how much they eat, they use eating to even the score. Fussy eating is not about food, it is about who is in charge. If we offer our children nutritional foods, in the portions appropriate to their age and size, we have done our job. If the food is not eaten, it should be taken away and no food should be offered until the next meal. This is not cruel or unfeeling, it is telling the child who is in control.
Although children try to take control, they would much rather that we assert our adultness. They are small and need our protection. If we give them the feeling that we are not in control, this takes away their sense of security.
Consider this analogy. You go to the dentist with a sore tooth. The first dentist you go to looks in your mouth and consults with the nurse as to what tooth she thinks it is. He also asks her what drill to use and whether or not to give you a shot. You decided to go to another who looks in your mouth, identifies the tooth, and tells you what needs to be done and how it will be done. In the first situation, you are made uneasy and anxious. In the second, you can relax because you appreciate that the person in charge knows what he is doing. Children are the same; if they sense that we are unsure about how to get them to eat, this gives them the sense that you are not competent and this can be frightening and anxiety provoking.
The most important food habit children can learn is to eat when they are hungry and to respond to their stomach signals over and above their reaction to tastes and aromas. This has many benefits, not the least of which is that children reared this way are less likely to overeat and get fat than children who are not. Mealtime should be a relaxed and an enjoyable time for everyone. And this is more likely to be the case if we take charge and are the ones to decide when and what our children will eat. Let them decide how much.
By Professor David Elkind