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The Powerful Question Every Parent Needs To Ask Their Child During Meals

10/04/2017 13:10 EDT | Updated 10/04/2017 16:48 EDT

When I first started working as a dietitian, I saw plenty of people perplexed about food. They went on diets, ate when stressed, and couldn’t figure out how much food to eat. In short, they had an unhealthy relationship with food.

I used to be this way too. And you know what, it wasn’t my nutrition education that taught me how to relate to food in healthier ways. It was learning to tune into feelings of hunger and fullness. When I figured out that my body knew how much food to get it was like winning the lottery. Just listen and tune in? Who knew it could be so simple?

Most people think that the answer to preventing eating problems is to get children to eat healthy foods. Many children’s stories center around this. Remember how strong Popeye got after eating spinach? The thinking goes, if we can just get our children to eat healthy from the beginning, the problem will be solved.

Not so fast!

How Kids Eat Matters

While learning to like a variety of nutritious food is important, how children eat is just as important. Research shows that as kids get older, they gradually lose their ability to regulate their food intake, meaning they eat too little or too much food for their body type. In other words, babies and young toddlers are better at regulating their food intake than school-age kids, and school-age kids are better than teenagers. Oh, and adults are the worst of all!

A growing body of research suggests that those who hold on to this ability -- often called intuitive eaters -- have lower BMIs, less disordered eating, improved well-being, and healthier diets.

A great place to start helping kids tune into hunger and fullness is to ask them: What Does Your Tummy Say? This is especially important at meals or anytime they ask for more food or want to leave the table. If they are hungry for more, by all means let them eat more. If they are not hungry for more food, by all means let them eat less. But the key is to let their hunger and fullness cues guide their eating; not cleaning their plate to get a reward or bow out of eating because they’d rather snack later.

How this Question Helps Solve Problems

There are three obstacles that can get in the way though -- a small or big child, the nature of kids eating, and a food-centric environment. Let’s briefly touch on each of these.

If a parent views their child as too small or big, it can be hard to accept the child’s appetite when the parent isn’t comfortable with their child’s size. But studies show fighting it -- pressuring the little kid to eat more or trying to get the bigger kid to eat less -- has the opposite effect. The answer usually lies in helping the child become aware of how they feel, rather than trying to get them to eat a certain way that may not match their appetite or needs.

And all parents need to remember that kids grow in spurts. When they are going through a growth spurt, they will be hungrier. When they are not growing as much, their appetite wanes. So expecting children to always eat the same amount is not realistic or in line with child development. Rather, helping them notice the difference between real hunger and something else is key.

Last is our food-centric environment. If children become accustomed to always eating food when it’s around, they won’t do well. But when parents instead structure meals and encourage children to pay attention while they eat, they learn to manage this environment just fine. For example, when my daughter started kindergarten and got a new-kind-of-access to food at school, I asked her to bring the items home (not counting parties of course). Then, we found ways for her to fit the food in her meals and snacks. And in the cases she didn’t like the food, we kindly gave it away.

Resources That Can Help

I’ve developed books and resources for parents on internal approaches to eating but thought it was time to talk directly to kids. That’s why I created a story about a second grade girl, Emily, whose mom always asks her: What Does Your Tummy Say? Emily discovers not everyone listens to his or her tummy and tries to help three other characters. Her mom helps her teach each of these individuals why listening to their tummy is the way to go.

Reading such a book with your child can open up the conversation about listening to hunger and fullness. Why is it important to listen to your tummy? When you don’t, what problems can arise?

But most importantly, it can help children grow into adults who keep this healthy habit going instead of stopping it. And when they reach for something to eat they’ll ask themselves that same question they heard many years ago: What does my tummy say?

Connect with Maryann on Facebook and Twitter. Find out more about her books here.