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Raising an In-Tune Eater

Are you a life-long member of the clean plate club? Many of us joined up when we were young because of well-meaning parents who urged us to finish everything on our plates–whether we were still hungry or not. Or maybe you had the opposite experience–your food portions or the type of foods you ate were strictly controlled and left you wanting more.

We're born with a natural ability to want food when we're hungry and to stop eating when we're satisfied. But after a few years of eating from external cues–like the school lunch bell or dinner promptly at six–we may lose touch with our inner signals of hunger and fullness, which can trigger a lifetime of weight problems.

Naturally, you don't want your kids to face the same struggles. Here's how you can raise an "in-tune" eater:
  • Do your job and let kids do theirs. According to child-feeding expert Ellyn Satter, RD, a parent's job is to provide the structure of regular meals and snacks and to choose the foods offered; a child's job is to choose what to eat from among the foods offered and how much. Give them the freedom of choice within the structure you provide.
  • Be neutral about foods. Classifying foods as "good" or "bad" can backfire. Want to see kids refuse to eat spinach? Just insist that they eat it because it's "good" for them. Want to see kids go wild for candy? Tell them they can't have any because it's "bad" for them. Instead, look at the big picture of what they eat. Provide the foods they need every day for good health from MyPyramid and allow some room for treats.
  • Make "recreational" eating off limits. Establish a house rule that the TV is turned off during meals and snacks. Without the distraction, everyone can enjoy their food and better notice when they've eaten enough. This rule also breaks kids of the "watch and munch" habit of snacking just because they're watching TV.
  • Make them food fans. Foster kids' appreciation for food by taking them grocery shopping, getting them involved in preparing meals, helping them plant and tend their own vegetable garden and, if they're interested, enrolling them in a kids' cooking class.
  • Don't panic. It's normal for kids (and adults) to under-eat or overeat once in awhile. Kids who are "in tune" will balance out their food intake over time.

More information:
Four Steps for Helping an Overweight Child
Time-Saving Tactics for Healthy Family Eating

Reviewed by the Scientific Advisory Panel, 2006