One of my young twins stuffs herself at parties

I want to encourage healthy eating, but am afraid of creating a battleground over food

An apple a day. In health it is the habit that matters not the exception. Photograph: Getty Images

An apple a day. In health it is the habit that matters not the exception. Photograph: Getty Images

 

I have two gorgeous six-year-old twin girls who I worship, but I worry that I am making an issue for them about their eating. They are wonderful eaters and people gasp at how they enjoy their food. As a family we eat healthy food – every morning they have a breakfast of porridge and fruit and every night they eat up all their dinner. They get a little pudding every night for their ‘clean plates’ .

The problem is that my daughters – and one in particular – will continue to eat food if it is available and do not know when to stop. The problem really starts when we are out socially or at parties as she tends to go bit mad and eat everything (chips, buns, cakes etc).

My husband and I don’t with children overindulging at parties so we try to guide our little ones on sampling and enjoying a little, eg have a small piece of cake, or try a piece of fruit first. It easily becomes a stressful battle as my daughter keeps pushing for more and I am trying to manage what she takes.

I get criticised by other family members who think I am restricting her. I do eat very healthily myself but I do not restrict the kids to just the food I eat. For example, I am happy for them to have sausages and chips at parties but just don’t want overindulgence.

I am worried I might be over-controlling and am a little confused as to what the best way to respond. Should I just let her eat what she wants at parties (where others serve foods I wouldn’t at home) or stick to my guns and be assertive about what she should eat? My husband thinks I am not definite enough and my constant negotiation with her causes the problem.

I just don’t want food to become an issue for her and I want to be able to give her space as she gets older and trust her on playdates to make her own decisions etc. What is your advice?

ANSWER

Food is a very emotive issue in families that can easily become a battleground between parent and child. You are right to want to establish healthy eating habits for your daughters, as poor eating habits in childhood have long term consequences and childhood obesity is a major health issue. However, you are also right that it is important not to be “over-controlling” about food as this is counterproductive.

The long-term goal is to help children develop healthy eating habits and to be able to self-regulate their food intake, though this takes a great deal of patience and hard of work. Part of the challenge is that we live in a relatively toxic health environment, where children are bombarded with offers of unhealthy food: from restaurants offering only unhealthy kids’ meals – and in enormous portions – to shops surrounding kids with attractive treats every time they go out, to parties and social events becoming times of excess eating. All this makes it hard to maintain a healthy eating habit for your children.

The good news is that on reading your question (and your much longer one where you detail all the food your children are eating), I think you are doing a great job.

The most important thing you can do as a parent is establish healthy eating in the home on a daily basis as this sets children up for life. It also means that the odd excess at parties where children eat unhealthy foods and treats in large amounts does not matter too much. In health it is the habit that matters not the exception.

However, you are right to want to move from ‘battling’ with your daughters about food to a point where you encourage them to make most of her own food decisions. Below are some ideas to help.

Encourage her to decide how much she eats

When serving food at meals in the home, rather than encouraging her to ‘clear her plate’, give her a small portion and let her ask for more if she is still hungry. The ideal is to have all the healthy food in the centre and to let her take her own portion and go back if she wants more. This message is that she can eat as much healthy food as she wants and this encourages her to ‘tune into’ her body when she is full. Sometimes the goal of ‘clear plates’ can cause children to overeat, rather than stopping when they are appropriately full.

Break the association of a treat or pudding after eating

Though it is a long standing tradition, one of the problems of having a pudding as a reward after dinner for ‘clear plates’, is that it could encourage children to quickly eat ( and possibly overeat) their healthy food in order to get the treat. I often suggest that parents have small treats or puddings at other times in the day. These can be used as rewards for work done in the home (eg if you are good when we go out, we can have a small treat at home or when you tidy your room then you can have a small chocalate).

Handling parties and social events

Often a pragmatic approach is the best one when out at parties or social events, bearing in mind that occasional excess will have no bearing on her long-term habits, while battling to control her will be problematic. Try to be relaxed and take a step back. You could experiment with either letting her make her own choices and perhaps occasionally having too much or having one or two simple rules that you assert clearly – “ when at the party you can only have one bun or slice of cake”.

Have a look at other food and eating articles I have done on irishtimes.com for more ideas on establishing healthy eating and taking the battles out of dinner time.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker, psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. For details of courses on Promoting Positive Self-esteem and Parenting Young Children in Dublin and Cork, see solutiontalk.ie

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