As most parents know, raising children can be an adventure -- particularly at mealtimes. Nearly all children develop eating problems at one time or another -- from refusing to eat vegetables or liver to refusing to eat anything at all.
As you sit at the breakfast table trying in vain to beg, threaten or bribe your child into starting the day with at least some protein, minerals and vitamins, it may be comforting to know that you're not alone.
In fact, a group of 100 pediatricians surveyed informally by two authors said the question mothers asked most often is "How do I get my child to eat?"
In "Are You Hungry? A Completely New Approach to Raising Children Free of Food and Weight Problems" (Random House, $15.95) nutritionists Jane R. Hirschmann and Lela Zaphiropoulos outline a new approach toward freeing adults from the stress-filled task of policing a child's meals.
The authors put their faith in children's natural ability to eat when they're hungry, and to stop when they're full. The goal is not to make the child eat, but to let his natural appetite come to the surface so that he wants to eat.
To achieve this, parents must first break away from many rules. Depending on when you grew up, you might have been told to "Take a bite for Grandma," or "Eat what's on your plate because children are starving in China." And don't forget the days when your parent waved a fork around in front of your face and chanted "choo-choo," pretending your mouth was a tunnel. Still other tricks involved threats and promises, like "If you don't drink your milk, you'll get sick" and "If you eat your carrots your eyesight will improve."
Throw out those time-worn adages and tricks, the authors suggest. Also discard the notion that children must consume three meals a day in order to achieve a well-balanced diet. Children should eat only when they're hungry, not just because it's mealtime.
When your child was an infant, you probably fed him on demand. As all mothers know, an infant knows when he's hungry, knows how much he needs to eat to fill that hunger, and even knows when to stop. Pediatricians concluded long ago that four-hour feedings should be done away with because babies thrive better on their own schedules. Unfortunately, parents abandon demand feedings when their children start on solid foods.
Many children do not like to eat three meals a day, nor do they have the capacity to do so. Young children especially need to eat many times during the day to keep up with their growth spurts and energy level. The trick is to have a wide variety of foods available throughout the day so they're not just munching on cookies.
Getting your child to eat, Hirschmann and Zaphiropoulos claim, involves asking three simple questions: Are you hungry? What do you want to eat? Are you full?
Are You Hungry?
"You should start by telling your children from now on they will be in control of their eating," Jane Hirschmann said in a telephone interview. "Do this in whatever language is appropriate to the age of your children. Let it be clear that whenever they are hungry, they can choose foods they like from what is available in the house. Each time they ask for food, you should simply ask, 'Are you hungry?' The goal is to communicate and reinforce a simple but important message: Requests for food should be made when -- and only when -- there is a feeling of hunger."
But it can be difficult to know if your child is hungry or just needs some attention. "If you suspect your child is not really hungry for food but is only bored or in need of a little loving, then give the child alternatives to choose from. Ask him if he wants to eat something, or would he rather read a book with you or play a game. If the child is really hungry, he will choose the food. If he's not, you've given him the chance to let you know what is on his mind."
It may take time for you as well as for your child to be able to accurately tell when he is physiologically hungry. If your child is used to eating because "it is time to eat," getting him to ignore the clock and connect eating with hunger will take some work. You should begin by letting him know that he is no longer restricted to eating at mealtimes but can eat whenever his stomach feels hungry.
"Basically," the authors contend, "you will be encouraging your child to relearn what he knew as an infant -- to recognize the feeling and to eat when hunger is felt."
What Do You Want to Eat?
When you first ask your child what he wants to eat, you'll probably get requests for food he thinks you will not approve of. "Testing of this sort will continue until the child is sure you are not going to withhold certain foods," the authors write. "Keep in mind that hunger has two aspects. There is, first, the feeling of emptiness inside. Second, you need to identify exactly what kind of food will most satisfyingly meet the hunger pang: the 'specific hunger.'
"Your child must learn, as adults do, how to read his hunger. Much of the overeating that people do is caused by the failure to recognize what exactly it is that they are hungry for. No amount of consumption of the wrong foods -- for example, sweets when pasta is desired -- will bring satisfaction. Your child will eat proper amounts of food if he is fed what his hunger craves," the authors write.
Sometimes a child needs help in deciding what food he is really hungry for. Try asking if he wants something hot or cold, and you've already narrowed the field, the au- thors suggest. Try to determine if he needs protein, carbohydrates, fruits or vegetables.
What happens if your child decides to eat nothing but gumdrops? "It has been our experience that whenever gumdrops are treated like celery, they are not eaten in excess by children. You must remove the 'forbidden' label attached, in this case, to gumdrops. It is the 'forbidden' quality of a particular food that makes it so attractive and desirable," Hirshmann said.
Are You Full?
This may sound like an unusual question, but it's a very important one. It helps the child learn that after he matches his hunger with a food of his choosing, he can stop eating once he's full. In order to learn when to stop, the child has to feel sure that there is more than enough available for him. If there is an ample supply, he will have to determine from inside when to stop. "Let's say your son likes potato chips. There should be more bags of potato chips available than he can eat at one time," they write. "Perhaps four bags would be right for a start. He will have to look at that sea of potato chips and really decide from the vantage point of plentitude how much will be enough. It will no longer be possible simply to eat until it's all gone. Nor will it be necessary to gobble up whatever he can in order to ensure getting his share. Of course, supplies should be replenished when they are getting low so that the child does not select a food simply because he is fearful that there won't be more later."
Give each child a shelf or an area where he can keep specific foods that are important to him, the authors suggest. A vegetable bin in the refrigerator and a shelf in the pantry that are exclusively his will make your child feel important, and will instill a sense of responsibility both about eating and about knowing when to stop.
"Too often, fullness is determined by external cues," Hirschmann said. "A very common cue is allowing what's on the plate to determine fullness. For a child this means that the portion served is supposed to match the hunger. And more often than not, this isn't necessarily so. Parents must be willing to provide second portions and be willing to wrap up uneaten food."
"The message," she stressed, "should always be: 'Eat until you are full.' ".