When my first of three children came along, I made a commitment that I wasn’t going to repeat the sins of the past. I grew up in a household run by a mother whose own mother, a child of the Great Depression, wouldn’t allow anyone from the table without a clean plate. I can only recall a few instances when that dynamic extended to me, but I remember very clearly those times—those tense moments when the prospect of spending the night at the table with visions of starving children in Africa dancing in my head forced me to shovel food in despite the fact that I was full.
Looking back, I understand where she was coming from—where they all were coming from: our heritage was one of hard physical labor, of crack-of-dawn potato picking and bucksaw tree cutting and livestock tending and hot steaming caloric-laden piles of meat and potatoes were the only way a person could cope. But my generation and subsequent ones are a new garde: less active as our world becomes more automated, inundated with cheap and easy foods that make it too easy to eat poorly, and still clinging to Mom’s loving but terribly misguided example.
My kid wasn’t going to sit and slip peas from their skins in defiance like I did. I thought long and hard about what it was that perpetuated this problem and the answer came surprisingly easy: move less, eat less. Smaller person=smaller portion. This seems easy enough to comprehend, but it seems most challenging with our first child because, in my opinion, we’re most used to what we’re used to: serving ourselves. We project our desires onto their plate; and, in my experience, overloading a child’s plate with food overwhelms them. On more than one occasion I’ve seen a child give up and refuse to eat until someone re-plates the food in smaller portions. It’s always better to create a situation where they ask for more. This way, they learn very early on to listen to their own hunger cues and they get the satisfaction of pleasing you with how well they’ve eaten.
A few examples of serving sizes highlight how, when it comes to children, less is best. The recommended serving size of meat or cheese for a 2 year-old is 1oz. One ounce of meat is a 1”cube, a large bite for many adults. ¼ cup, the recommended serving size for grains or pasta, vegetables, and fruit, seems so much smaller when one considers its unit equivalent, 3 tablespoons. Frankly, if one makes the jump to a 10 year-old, the servings aren’t that much larger. A serving of meat is 2 ounces, about the size of half a deck of cards. Starches, vegetables, and pasta jumps to a mere ½ cup or 6 tablespoons.
Once I stopped overloading the plate, my child’s food consumption went up. As it should be, he was in control of how much he ate, and armed with a clarified understanding of how much he should eat, I felt empowered. The final step in conquering my nutritional worries was to start looking at my child’s diet over a period of days, not hours. Balance can be achieved over time, so a little wobble here or there isn’t going to make or break you. Look at what your child eats over the week and if you see a glaring omission or overuse, adjust it next week. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.