I am a scientist who studies the links between diet, obesity and cardiovascular disease. I am also a mom to three young (growing, hungry and active) children.
As a scientist, I know that children are born with an innate ability to self-regulate their food intake (they are very good at hearing and listening to their internal cues of hunger and satiety) and I know that this ability will stay with them as they grow, if it is not overridden by me (or any other well-intentioned, but perhaps uninformed, adult). I also know that eating behaviors established in childhood will likely follow into adulthood, meaning the choices and behaviors that are patterned for my kids now will have long-lasting consequences. What’s more, research has shown that children who have the opportunity to practice self-regulation (as they do when making their own food decisions) fair better later in life: they have higher self-esteem, better test scores and are more resilient. In other words, all signs point to the wisdom of letting your kids (within reason) determine when, how much and what they will eat.
Here’s the trouble with that: my scientist brain is often overridden by my mom brain which says things like “Dinner will be ready in half an hour. Can’t you please just wait so that you don’t spoil your appetite?” or “I just sat down. Are you sure that your body wants more? Are you really hungry for seconds?” And, thus, I live in a state of constant tension between what I know from research and what I experience in practice.
About a year ago I moved all of our kid-friendly dishes into a low cabinet so the two oldest (ages 4 and 19 months) – who like to do everything they can for themselves – can get water when they need it and can help set the table or empty the dishwater. One day after responding to the third “Mom, I’m hungry. Can I please have something to eat?” request, something occurred to me: this was a perfect opportunity to help my kids begin to make healthy food choices and establish a respectful relationship with food. What came from this realization is a pantry shelf dedicated to kid-friendly, mom-approved snacks: foods kept within reach that I am comfortable with them eating.
Now, when they ask for something to eat I tell them that they can help themselves. I still help them with portion size and they don’t have endless access (for example, if it’s close to dinner) but they are free to make their own decisions and I respect those choices once they’ve been made. There is also a shelf in the refrigerator door which I keep stocked with snacks like yogurt, string cheese, carrot sticks and hummus (but it also happens to be the tallest shelf of the door so it also currently houses a bottle of wine, which didn’t just seem appropriate for photos!)