When children don’t want to eat…

Eat this now!
Eat faster because it’ll be cold!
You have to eat!
Doesn’t matter you’re not hungry!
Eat this meat, at least!
If you don’t eat, you won’t go play!
You’re too slow!
You won’t go until you eat this!
I spent a lot of time cooking so eat!
Don’t make me angry!
Have you ever heard things
like that? Yes, me too.
When I was a kid, I couldn’t
choose what I’d eat and what I’d leave. I had already prepared meals and nobody
asked me what I was in a mood for. My grandmother was thinking about what, in their
opinion, my sister and I wanted and she just gave us plates and told us to eat.
Without asking what we wanted, without asking if we were even hungry. It was
the time to eat and that all what mattered.
I remember this moment when I
was sitting on the table and I had this plate with a liver on it. I really
didn’t want to eat this because I didn’t like it (I tried before) and the smell
was horrible to me. I was repeating how much I didn’t want, how much I didn’t
like it but my grandmother didn’t want to listen and she kept repeating that I
wouldn’t go play with my friends if I didn’t eat that terrible thing. She said
I needed meat to grow (by the way, this is not true because a human body
doesn’t need meat to grow healthy but this is something for another post) and I needed food in
general. I cried and she got angry. I don’t remember how it ended. But what I
know is that from all these different memories from my childhood, this is one
of just few that I remember very clearly and I can describe everything – my
face, what I was wearing, what my grandmother was wearing, where we were, what
the place looked like… It means something.
When people say „my kid
doesn’t eat enough!”, the very first thing to do is to think a little bit
more about different aspects, not focusing only on the problem you have that
your child doesn’t want to eat. Below you’ll find some possible reason and some
of you may be surprised how easy it can be…
Adults can easily choose their
food. They go to a grocery store, they choose things carefully, they cook, they
taste and they eat if they like what they cooked whenever they’re hungry.
Children don’t have any of that power what is not fair but is obviously a
normal thing because a 5 year-old boy won’t cook soup. The problem that I see
there is that they’re not even given a chance to share their opinion about
meals, they’re not even given a chance to say if they’re hungry or not.
Human body is amazing because
of million different aspects. One of them is that we know when we need food and
when we’re full. Children are humans too which means they feel when they need
to eat (so there’s no need to put a schedule with exact time of eating and to
expect them to do it on time that you decided about) or when they don’t and how
much they need. They have smaller bodies than adults and they don’t have room
for that much, also their bodies don’t need as much energy as adults’ bodies so
expecting them to eat the same portions or just a little smaller is like
expecting parents to eat as much meat as tigers’ eat. You know what it’s like,
some people eat one sandwich and they can’t move afterwards but other ones need
three sandwiches to not feel hunger anymore. It’d be a good idea to ask them
how much they want and respect it if they say they don’t want anything or they
want maybe only cucumbers.
People say their child
„doesn’t have an appetite” and it’s a start of panicking that
something bad will happen, that the child is too thin, is sick and so on, and
then they tell all those things to that child who feels just fine and has no
idea what they’re talking about. It’s very confusing to feel well and to hear
about possible illnesses at the same time. Nothing will happen to them if they
don’t eat two meals but they need to drink so they won’t be dehydrated. Also,
if you give your child snacks between meals, then sometimes some of them has
enough kcal to treat them like normal meals! Sometimes even a banana juice with
some other things in it might have enough kcal and fill that 2 year-old girl’s
stomach as well as potatoes, steak and some salad fill you. And then there
shouldn’t be any surprises after the same kid says: „I’m not hungry.”
Of course, I’m not saying you
shouldn’t be worried. This is a normal thing, I guess, to worry about your
children and everybody reacts in their own ways. But there are two main
differences I found:
1. worrying is not panicking,
at least not at the beginning (especially when nothing bad is happening), but
it seems to me like most of the people get to panic at the first place;
2. worrying is not getting
angry and threat your children („you won’t go play until you eat
It’s important to find a right
way to deal with the feeling of worry if you have one. Forcing children to eat (and
usually using those phrases that I put at the beginning) is simply hurting
them. After things like that they’ll associate meals with punishment, stress,
sadness, not with something pleasant what eating should be, and then the
problem with meals will actually appear because they won’t want to even come to
the table as they’ll know what to expect. The thing is to be honest and to feel
comfortable to talk about your own feelings that you have when your child
doesn’t eat. Very important is what is between you and your children because if
you don’t trust each other, then nothing will work.
Eating disorders are not found
in nature. I believe that if left to their own devices, children will feel a
hunger for those foods best suited to their continued growth, favoring what is
healthy and refusing what is unhealthy (for example, Alicia who has menu with
pancakes, ice-cream and all these sweet and delicious things and she orders
fish, broccoli and fruit). At times they may consume a lot of one food while
abstaining from other kinds, but over time an optimal  balance will be reached. The key here is that
they be left to their own device–without interference.
During your next meal,
consider all of the interactions between the child and others at the table.
Does someone offer them food before they can survey the table and select what
seems best to them? Does anyone look at the child or their plate with barely
restrained anxiety? Does the child feel free to select and to not select any
foods? Is there a threat, spoken or unspoken, that dessert will be withheld if
other food isn’t eaten? If so, what constitutes enough food and which kinds? Is
the child free to leave the table if they prefer to abstain from dinner
altogether? Or are they held in their seat by a silent threat? Is the child
treated any differently from the other adults at the table? Does anyone touch
their plate, silverware, or re-arrange their food? Are they expected to
retrieve their own food when able? Are the sugary foods kept beyond the child’s
reach? Is the child truly autonomous at the table, or is it just an appearance?
Once the child is back in full
control of his or her own diet there will likely be problems for others. If you
can resolve these problems without jeopardizing their newfound autonomy then
everyone will win. A parent might worry when they see their child eating only
chocolate for dinner. If honestly expressed it will sound something like this,
„Billy, when you eat nothing but chocolate instead of your usual meal I
worry that you’ll get a stomach ache/get a cavity/lose your taste for real food/gain
weight and I will then have to take you to a doctor/to a dentist/buy new
clothes.” While this expresses your concern you’ll feel much better once
it’s been acknowledged. Tell your child that you want them to reflect, or
repeat, what you’ve told them in their own words so that you can rest easier
knowing that they have considered your concern. If they don’t want to repeat
it, you can express your continued uneasiness. There isn’t anything more that
can be done at this point. You might consider how frequently or how well you
reflect your child’s concerns. Continue to pursue this arrangement of
reflecting each other as your level of stress prompts you. This process will happen
more readily once your child understands that it is reciprocal and that it is
vital to your own ability to deal with your concerns while granting him or her
autonomy. Explain to them that the decision to change their behavior is theirs
and that you want only to be heard.
Your child does not have to
care about your concerns. Only when they trust (and this will be tested) that
they are truly free to not care will they be at all disposed to genuinely care
about your feelings. This is a quality of adult-child relationships that is
very rare yet very rewarding.
In a few words, power and
threats of power, manipulation, and dishonesty, considered by most as
indispensable tools of parenthood, are in fact responsible for corrupting the
genius of a child’s inherent abilities to meet their own needs effectively. Not
only is the child harmed, but neither can love flourish in such an environment.
Talk to you next time!
Aga & Nathan