Building Your Child’s Self-Regulation at the Dining Table

“You have to finish what’s on your plate before you can have dessert.”

It’s something we commonly hear as children and possibly have used with our own kids. Understandably, we want our children not to be wasteful or ungrateful with their food, yet, as it turns out, ultimatums like this may have some unintended and potentially harmful consequences.

How we approach feeding our children has a significant impact on our children’s ability to self-regulate food intake. Self-regulation in their ability to manage their own emotions, behavior, and body movements when faced with challenges and triggering situations. This is something parents should pay attention to. The inability to listen to internal cues for hunger and satiety can lead to overeating, eating in the absence of hunger, and ultimately to health problems like overweight and obesity. In contrast, strong self-regulation usually leads to healthier eating. 

Evaluate what is working and what isn’t for your family. If you want to make changes, start small and one at a time. They’re more likely to stick around for the long haul. Here are some things you can do as a start:

  1. Serve small portions. Parents must inform and have realistic expectations about their child’s food intake. Remember that kids have small stomachs, and serving them the same portion size as you do to yourself sets everyone up for failure. Start with small portions and allow your child to finish what’s on her plate and learn to ask for more food, or better yet, let her serve herself. This can give her a sense of independence and control and provide another opportunity for her to listen to her internal cues. 
  2. Remove distractions, and focus on eating. Eating while distracted leads to overconsumption and reduced feelings of fullness. When it’s time to eat, whether a meal or a snack, sit down and enjoy your food. This behavior will help your child develop a healthy respect for and relationship with food. 
  3. Take your time. Kids tend to take longer to eat than most adults. This might be a good thing as it takes our body time to register those satiety signals telling us that we’re full. Slow down and take time when eating to focus on the flavors and textures and enjoy the company.
  4. Trust your children. It is also essential that his caloric needs are met over the day and not at any given meal. Children’s appetites will vary depending on what else they’ve eaten that day, how active they have been and whether or not they are going through a period of rapid growth. It’s challenging to keep track of everything your child has consumed and trust when he’s through eating. Teach him the words he needs to identify and express that feeling and tell him that he’s full. 
  5. Let her choose. Set boundaries that you are comfortable with, and within those limits, let your child make some choices for themselves about what they will eat. This doesn’t mean unlimited access to cookies or whatever their favorite snack is, but allowing them to make small decisions lets them practice this vital skill.
  6. Model the behavior you want to see. Children often need repeated exposure to foods before they are willing to taste them. Be patient and continue to present the food at the dinner table without forcing him to consume it. Take some yourself and let your child see you enjoying it. Parental modeling and availability of fresh fruits and vegetables at home have been positively associated with fruit and vegetable consumption in children.

It is indeed tempting and easier to micromanage our kids’ eating habits, but remember that building your child’s self-regulation at the dining table is an iterative process, and it’s never too late to establish healthy behaviors. Help your child learn good self-regulation starting as a toddler, and continue teaching them as they learn and grow.