Is Your Toddler Eating Enough?

We're in charge of what, when and where our kids eat. It's our kids' job to decide whether they eat and how much they eat.
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USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Girl (2-3) eating sandwich
USA, New Jersey, Jersey City, Girl (2-3) eating sandwich

“Wow, hungry girl.”

“Did you eat that whole thing?”

“Are you full? But you didn’t eat very much. Take another bite.”

You’re eating too much. You’re not eating enough. You say you’re full? Don’t listen to your body, pay more attention to how much food I decided to put on your plate. Bribing, pleading, chasing, commenting, shaming, hovering; these have made up a not insignificant portion of my daughter’s experience of eating.

There’s no negative intent behind any of it. Maybe the comments are said jokingly by an observer. Maybe we hover because our daughter seems easily distracted from eating. Maybe we push food on her because we’re still scarred from her struggle to gain weight as a newborn. Maybe we want some appreciation for a home-cooked meal.

Still, when we do all of this, we fail to notice our main message: Ignore your body’s signals for hunger and fullness. Ignore your body’s natural ability to regulate food intake.

That can’t lead to a healthy relationship with food.

Which is what the Ellyn Satter Institute has found over years of research on what they call “eating competence.” Which is why they’ve developed the Division of Responsibility. It goes like this:

We're in charge of what, when and where our kids eat. It's our kids' job to decide whether they eat and how much they eat.

What to eat is hard enough to settle on. (For ideas at various ages, see “My favorite way to get kids to eat greens” or the “Sleep, eat, potty” section of Zero to Five: 70 Essential Parenting Tips Based on Science.)

But it's particularly tough to let go of whether and how much. People seem preoccupied with how much food your kid is eating; from parents and grandparents to babysitters and bystanders you don'y even know. Lately, I've been on high alert for these messages about eating, and it’s surprising how prevalent they are. Especially proddings to eat more.

But, unless you’re living in poverty, that particular obsession is nearly always unnecessary. Amy Mohelnitzky, doing a rotation in pediatrics as a physician's assistant (after years of working to help families with obese children), says she and the supervising pediatrician would place bets:

When parents came in worrying that their 2- or 3-year-old wasn’t eating enough, which weight percentile would the child be in? The 90th percentile? Or the 95th?

Mohelnitzky wants all of us to see the dip in these clinical charts. They show normal body mass index (BMI)-for-age, from the Centers for Disease Control, for ages 2 to 20:

Between about ages 2 and 5, kids need less food. So they want to eat less food. We can rest assured: It’s safe for us to stop cajoling them, sitting with the next spoonful in front of their faces while they’re still chewing (I’m looking at you, dear hubby), cheering their every bite, and so on.

At every age, there’s a natural variation in the amount of food children want to eat from one day to the next. So it makes no sense to comment or shame when kids seem more hungry or less hungry than usual. I bet you find that variation is true of yourself, too. That is, if the messages you got about food as a child said: Listen to your body.

(Did they?)