The problem with portion size is this: Parents don’t trust their kids to get it right.
Think about it, if you thought your children would eat the right amount you wouldn't have to intervene. But you get involved because there's lot of evidence that your kids are kind of crappy about portion control.
Overeating gets all the media attention but most parents of young children are more worried about under-eating. In one study of kindergarteners, 85% of parents tried to get their kids to eat more.
Rather than control your kids' consumption, consider teaching your kids to self-regulate..accurately. Researchers accomplished this task in 6 weeks. You can too. (Read on for details.)
As I see it, the trust problem stems from two sources.
- Parents know kids are born being able to regulate how much to eat. Parents take this to mean their kids won’t overeat. (And this is true unless parents subvert their kid’s natural instincts which we do all the time. Read Two More Bites.)
- Parents also know that kids frequently under-eat. They haven’t yet learned to gauge how much food they need to get from one eating opportunity to another. (And many young kids don’t understand why they can’t eat whenever they want to….like later, after they’re done playing!) In the short-term, under-eating can be a big problem for parents.
At the same time:
- Either, parents think that young children know when they’re hungry and when they’re full (but they still have to be trained to eat enough food at the right times).
- Or, parents think young kids don’t really know how hungry or full they are and they’re not capable of learning this at such an early age.
The result is a situation where parents are willing to risk teaching their kids to overeat in order to make sure their kids don't under-eat. It's a high-stakes gamble.
Research shows children vary in their ability to self-regulate how much they eat.
So you might be right to distrust your kids. Some kids naturally eat more than they need. Other kids stop eating way too soon.
Unfortunately, many of the tactics most parents rely on to solve the situation simply make it worse. Kids respond to pressure by eating less or to restriction by eating more.
But even when parental prodding is relatively benign consider this:
When parents control how much kids eat, children don't learn to self-regulate—they don't learn to do the job on their own.
You've got to let go.
Teach your kids to self-regulate.
In one study, researchers taught a group of 3-4 year old children to self-regulate. They:
- Talked about the concepts of hunger, satiety and overeating.
- Educated the children on the anatomy of eating: mouth (for chewing), esophagus (for swallowing) and stomach (where the food goes when swallowed).
- Provided playtime with dolls with external stomachs that showed different levels of fullness.
- Encouraged the children to check in with their internal cues of hunger and fullness before, during, and after eating.
You can do all of this at home—even the dolls. The stomachs were made from nylon material (i.e. stockings) and were filled to varying degrees with salt. Make a few and strap them on to a couple of Barbies.
- Children played with the dolls and were taught to identify the stomachs with different amount of fullness.
- The children were asked to place their hand over their own stomach and tell whether they were hungry, a little full or very full.
- The children were asked to choose the doll stomach that was most like the state of their own stomach at various times throughout the day.
Will your kids make mistakes if you leave the eating up to them? Sure. But that’s how they learn.
The key is to talk to your kids about the underlying issues (hunger and satiation) and to focus less on the food.
Set appropriate times for meals and snacks—no eating on demand—and then let your kids practice, practice, practice. It won't just solve your short-term problems, it'll teach your kids the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy eating.
Remember, you have to let your children choose not to eat in order for them to choose to eat. (It's a freedom thing.) And you have to allow them to choose not to eat enough in order for them to learn to get it right. If this freaks you out read The Upside of Hunger.
For more on this topic read:
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~
Orrell-Valente, J. K., L. G. Hill, W. A. Brechwald, K. A. Dodge, G. S. Pettit, and J. E. Bates. 2007. “"Just Three More Bites": an Observational Analysis of Parents' Socialization of Children's Eating At Mealtime.” Appetite48(1): 37-45.
Johnson, S. L. 2000. “Improving Preschoolers' Self-Regulation of Energy Intake.” Pediatrics 106(6): 1429-35.