Do you do your best to listen carefully and validate your child’s opinion?

Do you avoid embarrassing him, especially in the presence of others?

Do you teach your child to be confident and independent?

Does all of the above apply to mealtimes?

Here is a story my 6 year old shared with me yesterday:

“The teachers were making me take more bites of the chicken at lunch.

I told them I was full. I wanted to leave room for my dessert, too, because it was my favorite peach crumble.

So I took more bites of chicken and asked if I could have the dessert but they said I should have more bites.

And they did not listen when I said my mom told me to not eat if I was full!

 They treated me like a baby! I was so embarrassed, they treated me like a baby!”

And she burst into tears.

Do children feel respected at mealtimes?

I am sure this may look like an overreaction to some but I guess my kids are very sensitive to mealtime pressure because they do not experience it at home. I am also sure the teachers who monitor us so closely our children at lunchtime were meaning well.

Besides, making dessert contingent on eating other things works to get more bites of this or that inside a child. At least in the short term. And for someone with a fierce sweet tooth like my baby. Does it also give more power to already pretty irresistible sweets? You bet!

But what I wanted to talk about today is that “they treated me like a baby” is my daughter’s way of saying “they belittled me”.

And just like that, with one conversation, all the efforts our amazing school staff has made that day to raise my child into an independent, confident and competent human being, have been unknowingly negated.

My daughter saw that she was not trusted as an eater and suddenly felt small and insignificant.

Monitoring every bite is controlling and may make children feel ashamed of their eating. If you do not believe me, have a look at this video where a grown-up person is getting a typical picky child treatment at a mealtime.

On the other hand, treating your child with respect at mealtimes comes with a bonus.

Once you set the limits in terms of mealtime structure and food selection, your child can choose what, how much, and whether to eat.  This will help him grow into an “intuitive” or “competent” eater.

Who are intuitive eaters? Raising intuitive eaters has been recently discussed by Maryann Jacobsen, RD from Raise Healthy Eatersand here is the definition she included.

Individuals who eat intuitively are not preoccupied with food or dieting and do not label certain foods as “good” or “bad.” Although taste is important, they often choose foods for the purpose of enhancing their body’s functioning. They are aware of and trust their body’s internal hunger and satiety cues and use these cues to determine when and how much to eat.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you like to be one? (If you are one, I am sure this is what you want for your child, too.)

“Competent” eater term has been coined by an internationally recognized feeding expert Ellyn Satter.

“Your child is a competent eater when . . . 

  • He feels good about eating. He enjoys food and joins in happily with family meals and snacks.
  • He enjoys meals and behaves nicely at mealtime. He feels good about being included in family meals and does his part to make mealtime pleasant. He does not make a fuss.
  • He picks and chooses from the food you make available. He is okay with being offered food he has never seen before. He says “yes, please,” and “no, thank you.” He ignores food he does not want and also “sneaks up” on new food and learns to like it. Eventually, he will learn to eat almost everything you do.
  • He determines for himself how much to eat. Only he knows how much that is. Trusting him to eat as much he needs lets him grow consistently and develop the body that nature intended for him.”

And as you may have guessed by now – raising a competent or intuitive eater is much more important than the short-term goal of getting a child to eat chicken, veggies or balanced meals.

Research shows that intuitive and competent eaters are enjoying a healthier and more varied diet in the long run, are more likely to be of normal weight and are less likely to eat for emotional reasons or diet.

And this is more than I could wish for my daughter.

No extra bites of chicken are required.