What Should You Do With a Ravenous Kid?

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A mother who is apparently familiar with my story, perhaps because she read Born Round, recently wrote:

My seven-year-old son eats constantly. He is growing (out as well as up) but, to be honest, he just loves food. I dont want to give him a complex but what do you do when he is begging for a snack 30 minutes after supper? What could your mom have done differently, if anything, to ward off your eating?"

Because a lot of parents face the challenge of a child who eats too much and is gaining weight in a way that's unhealthy and could wind up causing the child unhappiness, I thought I'd share much of my response to her:

I don't know that one answer fits all, or what would have been better for me ... You could tell him that you feel bad that he's hungry so soon after dinner, and suggest he eat a bigger dinner to avoid that, and then make the expanded portion of the dinner something relatively healthier and lower in calories than the snack would be.

You could tell him in a very non-appearance-related, non-judgmental, flat tone that you think that so much snacking isn't 'healthy,' without using the word 'fat,' and say that in your interest to encourage healthier eating, you'd like to strike a deal with him whereby if he wants a snack within two hours of the end of a meal, it has to be x, y or z: stuff that doesn't include ice cream, cookies, etc.

What I think you must NOT do is ban those things from his life entirely and demonize them. You can try to make clear that this isn't about the intrinsic evil of those foods or about their caloric load; it's about the importance of balanced, healthy eating. I think language is key, and it's vital to frame the goal as healthier eating, not eating that will avoid excess pounds and help him look better per se.

We're such an appearance-conscious society that whenever anything gets framed in terms of staying slim or staying attractive, then the impulses prodding us toward actions in conflict with thinness and conventional physical beauty get suffused with so much anxiety that we can go off the rails.

Beyond all of that, are you setting an example for him by not snacking a lot yourself, by exercising with apparent enthusiasm and enjoyment, etc? And, without making your home an ascetic, fraught environment that makes him crave 'forbidden' foods even MORE, are you making sure there's a preponderance of healthy alternatives around? It stands to reason—and experts say—that children emulate their parents' eating and dieting and exercising behavior as they do so much else. My story suggests that: Mom's eating adjustments were often odd rituals and fad diets. And thus mine were too.

I want to add a few quick things that, in my hurry to make sure I sent her a response before getting sidetracked by other tasks, I didn't put in.

She notes that at seven, he clearly loves food, really loves it. I'm assuming she means in part that he has a big appetite, but also that food exerts a sort of special pull on him. If that's so, I wonder—an open question—if making food a BIGGER part of his life, and not in terms of quantity, might be constructive. Let me explain: I found that when I started writing about food as a critic and hunting down the best this, that, and the other, it was a bit easier (though still not easy!) to restrain the sheer volume of my eating than in the past, because I'd channeled my food obsessions in a different direction. I was fixated on food quality, food adventures, etc. Discernment replaced a purer, more banal gluttony, and in that way, I think I moved a bit closer to the Western European attitude about, and approach to, food. As I describe in Born Round, it helped that I turned this corner in large part while living in Italy and observing how quality trumped quantity there.

Can that logic and dynamic be applied to a child? If a food-fixated kid is encouraged to help shop for the food and cook the food and try this and that and the other, can the "one more cookie please please please" requests be diminished?

This article also appears on bornround.com.

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Frank Bruni was the restaurant critic for The New York Times from June 2004 to September 2009. He is the author of Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite. Learn more at bornround.com. More

Frank Bruni was named restaurant critic for The New York Times in April 2004. Before that, he was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief, a White House reporter, the lead correspondent covering George W. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign, and a frequent contributor to the New York Times Magazine. His latest book, Born Round: A Story of Family, Food, and a Ferocious Appetite, is now out in paperback. To learn more about Born Round and ask questions about the book, click here.

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