Here in the UK, our toddlers are the proud winners of the prize for the highest levels of picky eating in whole of whole of Europe. I'm interested in how we achieved that accolade - I've yet to explore eating patterns in other European countries (it's on my bucket list) but I have a sneaking suspicion it might have something to do with hunger. As parents, we feel that it is part of our job to make sure that our children never get hungry. We never leave the house without a snack, no car journey can get under way until raisins have been distributed and every playgroup in the land is punctuated by snack-time.
Children should experience hunger - they should sit down to meals hungry and get up from them full. It's part of the natural rhythm of the day. I'm not talking about the kind of hunger that is born of deprivation, I'm thinking of hunger in the context of appropriate meals being offered at appropriate times.
Many health professionals advocate two snacks a day for young children and that's fine, IF they are also hungry at mealtimes. My message is simple - if your child is refusing food at breakfast, lunch or dinner, cut out the snacks. In fact, I've had dramatically more feedback from readers of War & Peas about my stance on snacking than on any other aspect of my approach. It really does work. So much so, that I'm going to be having a dedicated snack week on the blog, featuring a guest post about 'snacktivism' - one US mother's fight against American snack culture.
Snacking, however, is not the whole problem, it is simply symptomatic of our urge to stop our children feeling hungry. There are several reasons why we do this - children's behaviour is easier to manage when they are not hungry. Food gets used to entertain - bored children are hard work, so giving them something to eat keeps them occupied. Mini-cheddars are handed out like ritalin. Eat this and be quiet. Research into mothers' confidence about their parenting abilities showed that the less confident the mother, the more likely she was to try to soothe her child with food *.
At the other extreme, we give children snacks to show we love them - our warm feelings become transmuted into shiny pouches of cleverly marketed organic purees and weird strips of fruit-glue in 'fun, peelable strips'... And we give them snacks because, at a very basic level, we don't want them to experience discomfort.
This is a tough one, especially for parents who may have experienced hunger born of neglect or extreme poverty when they were growing up. But appropriate hunger is good. Appetite is your friend - if your child can learn to listen to her body's cues, she will be better at self-regulating and will learn when to eat and when to stop eating according to what her body needs. There are clear links between poor self-regulation and obesity later in life. If you mask your child's appetite by letting her graze throughout the day, it will be hard for her to learn how to listen to her body.
If your child is a picky eater, often refusing food at mealtimes, get her weight and growth checked. If she is healthy, try cutting out the snacks for one week. Put up with some bad moods and complaining and prepare to be amazed.
*C. Stifter, S. Anzman-Frasca , L. Birch, K. Voegtline (2011) Parent use of food to soothe infant/toddler distress and child weight status. An exploratory study Appetite, Vol. 57(3), pp. 693-9