Q: My 6 yr old daughter is not overweight, and is actually tall and quite thin. She LOVES to eat, and is obsessed with food. She thinks about food and talks about food very often. My real concern is that she always eats 100% of what is given, and if allowed to have more (I usually don’t offer), she seems to honestly have no limits. She especially loves sweets. I’m concerned about how emotionally attached she seems to food, and mostly, that she does not seem to have an ability to notice fullness. Can you help me?
A: I follow the advice given by internationally recognized feeding expert, Ellyn Satter, RD, LCSW. She has some great books available such as Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense and Your Child’s Weight: Helping Without Harming.
If you are not already familiar with it, DOR basically says that parents decide the “what,” “when,” and “where” of feeding and children decide the “how much” and “whether” of eating. The idea is that children know how much food to eat when provided with a variety in structured settings (regular meals and snacks at the table). While most parents complain that their young children do not eat enough, in some cases, a child might need much more food at mealtime.
When children want more and don’t get it, they can become obsessed with food and eat more when they get a chance (especially when parents aren’t around). And sweets are even more attractive because they are rich in calories.
I recommend that you provide meals for your daughter and when she’s done ask her if she wants more. Continue to feed her until she says she’s full. At first, she’ll probably eat much more because she can, but after a while, she will get the idea that she can have enough food and will eat as much as she needs (which still might be a lot for her metabolism).
The same thing goes with sweets. Offer them periodically (at the table) and let her have as much as she wants. Assure her that she can have more another time.
Research shows that restricting intake and limiting access to sweet foods increases children’s preferences for such foods. What happens is something called “scarcity” where children feel food is scarce and want more. My dad was like this because he grew up poor and didn’t have regular access to food (he ate all of our leftovers). I don’t believe you are overly restricting her, just not allowing her to have more if she wants. But if she has a really high metabolism (being tall and thin) and is still hungry after eating what you serve, this could create scarcity for her.
Children also need a little more fat than adults so it’s okay to have butter with bread and regular cheese. Protein foods (eggs, chicken, fish, meat) are more satiating so you’ll want to make sure you are maximizing these items at mealtime. For example, cold cereal and fruit probably wouldn’t be enough sustenance for her in the morning.
You also can help her realize when she’s full by asking her when she says she wants more if her tummy is full. If you see her turning to food to deal with problems, encourage her to use non-food ways to solve them.
Response: I just wanted to tell you, your words really hit me–in a good way. I started that very day asking my daughter if she would like more after she finished her plate. It’s been 3 days, and I have offered more at every meal, and she has said yes each time. I have given more fruit or vegetable, and she eats all of it and then says she’s full now. I really feel a lot better, giving her the responsibility back to make the choice. And I can see in her face a change–she feels like I am trusting her to make a decision. This is really big for our relationship, and I already feel so much better not having food be such a weighty issue between us at this age.
Inspired by how many questions I’ve received about food obsession, I wrote the most comprehensive book about raising a child to have a healthy relationship with food: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food.