Children Know How Much They Need to Eat
All children know how much to eat: the large child and the small child, the big eater and the small eater. The average toddler eats from 960 to 1700 calories a day. Add on to that normal 20% over and under day-to-day variation, and that child will eat between 760 to 2040 calories a day. The day-to-day variation of pressured or restricted children is even greater as the child eats less or more depending on whether parents or the child have the upper hand.
When parents follow the division of responsibility in feeding, all children grow in the often surprising way nature intended. Your child will get hungry, eat, get filled up, and stop eating (even in the middle of a bowl of ice cream). Whether your child needs a lot or a little, she instinctively eats as much as she needs. If you follow the division of responsibility with feeding she will automatically eat the right amount of food to grow and be as active as is right for her. Provided you don't try to control her, she can even make up for her mistakes in eating. To be competent with eating and therefore to do well with her lifetime of eating amounts that are right for her and weighing what is right for her body, she needs to be allowed to preserve her sensitivity to her internal sensations of hunger, appetite, and satiety.
Children who eat and grow at the extremes make their parents so nervous that they often interfere. It backfires. In our weight-obsessed culture, parents may try to restrict a robust child with a hearty appetite because they assume that enjoying food and eating a lot means she will get fat. It doesn't, and it doesn't work. Children who don't get enough to eat - or fear they won't - become preoccupied with food and tend to overeat when they get a chance. So do children who are deprived of high-calorie "forbidden" foods. At the other extreme, parents may try to push food on a small, thin child with a small appetite, assuming she is doing poorly and thinking they should fatten her up a bit. It doesn't, and it doesn't work. Children who have food pushed on them become turned off by it and tend undereat when they get the chance.
Don't try to control the amount your child eats. It's her job to decide how much to eat, not yours. Instead:
- Maintain a division of responsibility in feeding.
- Do family-friendly feeding.
- Offer sit-down snacks between meals.
- Let your child grow up to get the body that is right for her.
- Don’t give your child handouts of foods or drinks between times, except for water.
For more about raising children who eat as much as they need and get bodies that are right for them (and for research backing up this advice), see Ellyn Satter's Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming, Kelcy Press, 2005. Also see www.EllynSatterInstitute.org/store to purchase books and to review comprehensive educational materials that teach stage-related feeding and solve feeding problems.
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