How to feed children: Do as I do

From using food as a comforter to treating it as an enemy, we asked leading psychotherapist Susie Orbach what we might really be teaching our children about eating?

Child eating

Susie Orbach is one of Britain's leading psychotherapists, she is also a psychoanalyst, writer, author and social critic. We asked her to give us some advice on helping children build a healthy and happy relationship with food...

I was watching parents in a restaurant yesterday cajoling their four year old boy to eat. When he showed no interest they enthused about how broccoli and pork would give him nice big muscles. It was no help. He simply wasn’t interested and their pronouncement of no dessert passed him by with nary a flicker. In total frustration as the little boy clambered all over his chair and played with his little figures, they said, well then, no playground.

It was a sad little scene. The parents meant well. They were worried that their boy was hungry or would be and would later pester them. This was family eating time. It looked like they were doing everything right but he didn’t want to eat.

The problem was, he wasn’t hungry and their timetable didn’t quite suit him. But beyond that, their cajoling, instead of inviting him to eat, set up a little protest movement in the boy and food was on its way to being a battleground infused with anxiety instead of a source of nourishment and pleasure.

We all want our children to eat healthily and we want it to be reasonably convenient for us. Grazing culture with food available in big cities at different prices all times of day and night has changed what eating is for and when it happens for all of us. This influences our children. They watch and notice what we do and how we eat, more than what we say about food. They see that we have easy access to food at almost any time and that eating is not restricted to sitting down or mealtimes. They hear that we say one thing and we do another. They mimic our behaviour and make it their own.

So what kind of new guidelines can we have these days to help our children...

  • Don’t give them a treat if they fall over. Soothe them instead with words or a hug. The ice cream doesn’t know it is meant to heal a fall and it doesn’t. If they can have a bit of a sob when they cry and are comforted, then they will associate a stumble with something they can easily get over. They won’t divert the upset over the stumble into a treat.
  • Help them to see eating as something we do when we are hungry.  
  • Don’t make particular foods a treat or good or bad. There may foods for special occasions like Shrove Tuesday or Christmas but try to neutralise food so that broccoli is no better or worse than yoghurt or bread or burgers or rice or pasta.
  • Talk instead about foods that deliciously fill your stomach and those that just pretend to by teasing us with sugar or salt.
  • Try to have a wide variety of foods available that look attractive. Fruit for example is far more compelling cut up.
  • Show them how you stop eating when you are full even if there is yummy food left. It will be there for when they or you are hungry tomorrow.
  • Try never to have a fight over eating
  • Enjoy your own food. It’s the best example.

How does Susie's advice compare with your experiences? We'd love to hear your thoughts and opinions...

Comments, questions and tips

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14th Jul, 2014
There seems to be a culture these days of 'snacking' being healthy for kids. What utter BS, no doubt conjured up by some marketing types somewhere as a means of making money. It confuses me when I speak to other parents who constantly offer snacks - like it's abuse to allow their child to feel the pang of hunger - and then complain that their child never eats a proper meal! Even at a 3hr morning daycare session I am expected to send them with a snack, even though they've just had breakfast and will be having lunch as soon as they get home. It's ridiculous. My children both eat whatever I put in front of them at meal times and I am very relieved about that, I feel like I'm doing the job of a being a mom well.
19th Nov, 2018
I concur.
22nd Jun, 2014
I have two ( now grown ) sons, one of which was very fussy and the other ate anything. I basically followed the points in the article and now have two sons who eat very well, and more to the point, healthly by choice. The one point you don't make is that children are small humans and like adults they have days when they a just not hungry, accept it as part of them being people and don't try and force them to eat. If food is available they will eat if they want to.
22nd Jun, 2014
What do I do when my very stubborn (nearly) 3 year old is confusing being hungry with wanting biscuits. Eg -through my bad habits she wants to eat a biscuit when she is hungry, how do I make her understand that she is hungry and should eat something 'proper' instead of a biscuit? Thanks.
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