Forget fussy eating. Making your kids eat everything on their plate will lead to obesity, bad eating habits and other problems.

Raising a fussy eater is probably one of parenting’s biggest problems or a mum’s biggest fear. You watch your child eye everything off suspiciously, and then refuse to eat anything except potatoes. For the next two weeks.

As mums, we are often chronically worried about what our children eat (or don’t eat). We do everything we can to avoid fussy eating because we know our children need the nutrition that comes from eating a variety of food.

Hence the oft-repeated parenting mantra: Finish everything on your plate. Or if you grew up in the 1980s: “There are children starving in Africa, don’t waste food.”

Should you make kids eat everything on their plate?

Nutritionist Amanda Muhl says no. Children shouldn’t be forced to finish everything on their plate because it will cause them to form an unhealthy outlook around food.

It can also override a child’s natural radar for fullness and push them to eat past satiation. (Coincidentally, one of the main reasons attributed to the extreme longevity of Okinawans is their practice of hara hachi bu: To stop eating when their stomachs are 80 per cent full.)

Before we talk about what we should do instead, it’s important to point out making children finish their food is different to encouraging them to try new food, which often is when the problem of fussy eating creeps in. An openness to trying new food is the first step towards solving fussy eating, but just because they’ve tried something doesn’t necessarily mean they have to finish a plateful of the same food.

In the video below, Amanda has some tips on how to get kids to try new food.

On the flip side, parents can also cause children to have an unhealthy relationship with food when they say to a child pleading for snacks, “You can’t possibly be hungry, you’ve just eaten.” Unless of course, said child is asking for snacks because they’ve skipped lunch, knowing they can get something they prefer later (hey, we never said parenting was easy and we all know kids are masters of deception).

The benefits of mindful eating for kids

Instead of forcing our kids to finish everything on their plates or determining when they should be hungry, Amanda suggests getting them to practice the art of mindful eating. The benefits of mindful eating include:

  • Learning to recognise when they’re hungry and full, which prevents overeating and childhood obesity.
  • Reducing habitual eating, or eating for comfort or boredom as it challenges them to think about why they want to eat.
  • Encouraging kids to make healthier choices as they start to realise how they feel after eating different types of foods.
  • Helping to develop a positive relationship with food, bringing the focus back to enjoying food and not having judgement or guilt related to the process.

“Mindful eating is about paying attention to what you’re eating, how you’re eating and why you’re eating without putting any judgement on yourself,” says Amanda. “It’s about engaging all your senses in the whole eating experience, right from when you feel like eating to when you finish.”

In the video below, Amanda talks more about mindful eating for kids and how you can start the practice.

While mindful eating is a good habit to develop right from when our kids are young, it’s never too late to introduce the concept to them.

How to encourage mindful eating in kids

  • Get kids to rate their hunger levels from 1 to 10, with 1 being starving, 10 being full and 5 being satisfied. Encourage them to eat when they feel 2 or 3, and stop when at 5.
  • Teach them to pay attention to physical cues of hunger: A grumbling tummy, or feeling tired or low in energy. Have healthy snacks available that they can easily grab and act on the physical cues.
  • Make sure kids are sitting down when eating and there are no distractions, such as the TV, phone or iPad. The idea is to bring the focus back to the food they’re eating.
  • Encourage them to slow down when eating. Remind them there is no benefits to finishing early.
  • Talk to them about how they feel, what they like about the food, engage their senses (taste, flavour, smell) and how they feel afterwards.

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