“I don’t want my child to be overweight”
If this is something you find yourself saying or thinking, you might be at risk of restricting your child’s food intake. This could bring about the very thing that you didn’t want to happen!
Restrict the amount your child eats and they eat more, restrict the type of food (in front of them) they will want that food more. It’s essential that we stick to our own roles and let children control the amount they eat. This can be a very difficult urge to control for parents who base their own food intake on diet and restriction.
Restricting the amount of food toddlers eat
We need satisfaction from eating! A toddler’s food intake (and everything else for that matter!) will be erratic. They may not touch some meals and the next they eat the house down.
Your toddler being able to eat the foods they like in satisfying amounts gives eating stability. Toddlers will learn they don’t have to overeat as there is always the opportunity to eat as much as they need at meals.
Until their appetite regulation is disrupted, toddlers know how much to eat…
If they are given high fat high sugar foods they will eat less
If they are given too little food they will look for food to fill them up
If they are given large meals they will eat until full and leave the rest.
Why we might want to restrict the amount toddlers eat
In a society consumed with diets and food restriction, we may think being relaxed about the amount our children eat at meals, may drive overeating and weight gain. NOT TRUE. It may be us who have lost the ability to regulate appetite, can’t be trusted with lots of food in front of us and assume our children lack the same control.
If we’ve struggled with weight and dieting, we may be more anxious about our child’s weight and feel we have to do something actively to control their intake. This will backfire.
Research says if we think we’re overweight, we are more likely to control how much our child eats. This results in children being more likely to become overweight. Interestingly daughters have their intake controlled more than sons. The vicious cycle of weight management.
What happens when we restrict or limit the amount toddlers eat
Controlling how much your toddler eats damages the feeding relationship with your child. Your child will be upset or angry with you limiting their eating and will find it very confusing.
Learning to regulate appetite
A toddler may have their food restricted through childhood. When those restrictions are lifted the child has no ability to know when they’re full and continues to overeat. You can’t control how much they eat throughout their whole lifetime!
The underfed toddler becomes fixated on food and will overeat when they can. They will be used to leaving the meal not being satisfied so will overdo it as they won’t know when they will have access to enough food.
So what action do we take?
- Let your toddler eat as much as they need (at meals)
- Make sure you have a good meal structure and no eating between meals (see our bit on meals here).
- Don’t use any devious ways of restricting food intake
- Make sure the foods you serve are satisfying and hearty enough so that toddlers will fill up, i.e. meals of just vegetables will leave your child without satisfaction and they will look out for other food
- Keep the faith with respect to feeding.
Restricting what type of food toddlers eat
There are 2 types of restriction and one of them is actually OK:
- Restriction that toddlers know about (overt)
- Restriction that toddlers don’t know about (covert).
Overt restriction refers to restriction that the toddler can see and is aware of.
- Keeping biscuits in the pantry but not letting your child eat them
- Drinking soft drink in front of your toddler but not allowing them any.
Overtly restricting access to a highly-desired food has the short-term effect of reducing the amount of that food eaten. This makes your child want it even more.
Research has found that when children have access to foods that were previously restricted overtly, overeating of that food occurs.
Covert restriction is restricting the type of food a toddler eats in a way they aren’t aware of. For example, not having unhealthy snack foods in the house or not walking home past the pie shop. The child is not aware that the food has been kept from them.
Covert restriction has been shown to reduce the unhealthy foods and drinks in a child’s diet.
The change to food in the home or in the toddler’s routine simply results in fewer unhealthy foods and drinks in the child’s environment.
Therefore they are less likely to eat them! Less access to unhealthy foods for your child may mean you eat better too and are able to be a better healthy eating role model.
What do we do?
Restrict unhealthy foods and drinks in a covert way, rather than deny toddlers foods that are in clear view.
Only keep foods in the house that you’re happy feeding your toddler. This may mean that you end up eating a healthier diet as well. If you do have some ‘adult snacks’ for when its adult time i.e. after the kids are in bed, then you need to find a good hiding spot for them.
Adjust your routine
Some examples of why you may need to adjust your routine:
- Lollipop from the hairdresser for “sitting still”
- Chocolate from the speech pathologist for “good talking”
- Bag of lollies from Johnny’s mum at soccer “so Sam didn’t feel left out”
- Ice-cream from Nanna for “being well behaved”
- A cup cake at daycare “because it was Jilly’s birthday”.
Once these foods have been offered, you have provided the opportunity to eat.
You need to leave the decision to eat up to your toddler. If you don’t want these offerings to happen, change your routine or ‘have a word’.
You took them to the party, therefore you provided them with the opportunity to eat. You can’t now restrict what your toddler has at the party. If you feel there is too much unhealthy food in your child’s life and you want to limit it, then a covert way would be to look at how many birthday parties you get invited to and limit them.
Create the rules
There will be times when it’ll be very difficult to restrict food in a way that makes your child unaware. Like a trip to the shopping centre, where unhealthy food is displayed everywhere ensuring that your child knows exactly where it is!
There are times to create rules, be consistent with the rules so over time it becomes “not an option”. Your child will learn that there is no chance of this rule being broken i.e. “we don’t get lollies while shopping“. It is important to make rules about what is important.