The Key To Happier Mealtimes...Forever!

The conversations regarding the Weight Watchers app for children the last week have reminded me of one of the main reasons why I started this blog, and that was to share my learnings about a kid’s ability to regulate their own appetite; invaluable information I got from my paediatric dietician when my twins were little.
We don’t need a weight loss app that labels food as ‘good’ or ‘bad’ or obsessing over calories at such a young age. As Jo Cormack (a child feeding therapist) said in my original post on the subject on my Facebook blog, ‘the key to a positive relationship with food (AND to minimising the risk of eating disorders) is to help children learn to self-regulate. This means nurturing their ability to tune into their bodies, and make eating decisions in response to internal cues, not external cues like societal pressure, a parent or an app’. This approach to mealtimes has been life changing for my children and for us all actually. Before I knew anything about self-regulation of appetite, I used to stress out at each mealtime, desperate for my kids to eat everything I had put on their plate, thinking it was my job to decide when they have had enough. 

❓So, how can YOU teach your child to know when they have eaten enough? ❓

By simply letting your child tell you when he/she has had enough to eat, they are the best judges and that’s all there is to it. Doesn’t that sound like the best thing in the world?! Actually, it probably sounds like the scariest thing in the world! 🥴 I have tried to anticipate your questions by posting below what I asked my own dietician a few years back. 

🤔 Q. So, you’re saying I don’t need to be in charge of how much my kids eat?

🤓 A. Nope! Children have a natural ability to know when they are hungry and when they are full. If we teach them to ‘finish what’s on your plate’, they may learn to ignore their body’s needs which could then lead to poor self regulation of feeding, and problems with weight management later on. 

🤔 Q. Letting my child decide when he’s eaten enough is all very well, but my child eats so minimally at some meals, he needs encouraging.

🤓 A. Children often eat well at only 1 or 2 meals a day and their appetites can really fluctuate depending on the day so it is advisable to look at your child’s dietary intake over a few days to a week. If your child is growing well, then they are getting what they need. Also, as adults, we can often overestimate how much our children need to eat; children are the best judges of how much they need and the sooner we let them do this, the sooner they will be in tune with their own hunger cues and mealtimes will get a whole lot easier!

🤪🤔 Q. But I’m fearful of my child waking in the night if he doesn’t eat much for at teatime?

🤓 A. Like adults, when children go to sleep (not babies), their bodies shut down and go into ‘repair mode’, therefore not requiring extra fuel to do this. Children usually wake in the night either through habit or because they are light sleepers. As mentioned above, it is advisable to view your child’s food intake over the course of a few days or week rather than what they specifically had at dinnertime.

🤔 Q. That’s all very well letting our kids decide how much to eat at mealtimes, but we don’t let our children dictate that for any other areas of their day such as when they go to bed or getting them to do their homework.

🤓A. When it comes to food, a child needs to listen to internal cues, not external ones. Eating their food for a bribe or sticker for example does not teach a child to listen to their bodies to know when they are full or hungry. We want kids to be in tune with their own hunger and fullness cues. You as parents can decide what is on their plate to ensure there is the option of healthy & nutritious food available, but it’s important to let your child decide what and how much they want to eat. ‘You provide, they decide’ is a good one to remember!

🤔 Q. Letting our child decide when they are full is great in theory, but what do you do when your child asks for food or a snack 30 minutes after eating?!

🤓 A. Asking for a snack after a meal could be a habit your child has got into and if they know they will get one, are likely to eat less at teatime. It is advisable to keep to a set routine of meals and snacks so your child gets used to knowing what it feels like to feel hungry or full rather than continuously asking for food. 
As with adults, by having routine mealtimes, your child will start to feel hungry at certain times of the day, rather than continuously “grazing” on snacks which may not provide adequate nutrition. 

🤔 Q. My child wouldn’t eat anything if I didn’t ask him to, especially his vegetables!

🤓 A. Have you tried not asking? A genuine question here! We so often underestimate how capable our kids are. It’s scary letting them have control and he/she may not eat straightaway especially if they are used to being fed, but give them space and see what happens. The more we pressure our kids into eating the food they are not keen on, the more they will back away. They will sense the pressure and desperation. This approach to feeding is long-term. It’s about eating the food we would like our kids to eventually eat and this won’t happen in just one meal. 

A special thanks to paediatric dieiticans Judy More ( - based in London) and Andrea Fines ( based in Berkhamsted) who helped me put this article together. 

* This blog post and all the content on this page is aimed at parents who struggle with their child's fussy eating behaviour, however, if you have concerns that your child is underweight, undernourished or has a severe behavioural eating problem, please contact your GP for further advice. *

Grace Willis