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“Are You Full?” Teaching Kids When to Say When

Posted on: April 3rd, 2013 by Bettina Elias Siegel

ih-family-mealtime-304x304About two months ago I was prescribed an antibiotic, doxycycline, for a sinus infection.  The medicine came with a warning that you shouldn’t lie down for thirty minutes after taking it, but I somehow managed to forget all about that, popping a pill in my mouth with just a small sip of water and going straight to bed.   Um, not so smart.  Several hours later, after dreaming over and over again that someone was drilling a hole in my chest, I awoke to find that the medication had actually burned an ulcer in my esophagus.  Yikes.

As you can imagine, for the next two weeks eating was not a pleasant experience.  It didn’t matter whether I sipped a cool smoothie or ate solid food — everything hurt going down.   I took no pleasure in my meals and the minute I’d eaten enough to feel remotely satisfied, I put my fork down gladly.

But what that episode taught me was so surprising, it might have been worth the pain I experienced.  During those two weeks I realized that there is a huge difference between the amount I need to eat versus the amount I usually eat at a meal.  And this is from someone who doesn’t usually take big portions and who has never been a member of the “Clean Plate Club.”  Even so, I was surprised at how little food I really needed to satisfy my hunger.

But now that I’m healed, it’s still a struggle to ignore the many factors that keep all of us from truly listening to our bodies while at the table:  the ever-growing size of restaurant portions and plates; the liberal use of salt, sugar and fat to maximize food’s tastiness; a desire not to waste food; and also the social aspects of dining, which make it rather awkward to stop eating after just a few bites when everyone at the table is still digging in.

So I was especially interested in an op-ed in the New York Times called “The Talmud and Other Diet Books,” in which the author, a rabbi and academic, discusses how all the major religions — Christianity, Judaism and Islam — encourage us to eat only what is needed to satisfy.  The Talmud, for example, instructs us that people should “eat enough to fill a third of their stomachs, drink enough to fill another third, and leave a third empty.”

While not mentioned by the author, I found this advice is strikingly similar to the Japanese expression hara hache bunmi, which roughly translates into the notion that we should stop eating when only 80% full.  And I was also reminded of Karen Le Billon’s excellent book French Kids Eat Everything, in which she tells us that in France:

. . . parents ask their children: “Are you still hungry?” rather than “Are you full?” — a subtle, but important distinction. And because they don’t randomly snack, French children get used to waiting between meals. They learn that that it’s OK to have a comfortably empty stomach—which enables them to eat reasonable quantities of the energy-dense foods served at mealtimes, so they don’t feel hungry until the next meal—creating a virtuous cycle.

But here in America, where “super-sizing” and Value Meals are the norm, achieving a state of maximum fullness seems to be the goal.  So how do we teach our kids when to say “when” at the table?

With my own kids, I’ve explained that there’s a real delay between when our stomachs are satisfied and when our brains register that fact.  So when my kids ask for another portion of food and they’ve already eaten quite a bit, sometimes I’ll say, let’s wait ten minutes and if you still want it, I’ll gladly give it to you.   More often then not, they’ve left the table before the ten minutes are even up, a clear sign that they didn’t need that extra helping.

I also love Michael Pollan’s “Food Rule” that if you’re not hungry enough to eat an apple, you’re not really hungry.  If my kids come nosing around the pantry and it’s close to dinner time, I tell them they can have any fruit they want but nothing else.  More often than not, they drift away and are easily able to wait until the meal is served.

But it’s not always easy.  Here in Tex-Mex-loving Houston, I still haven’t been able to teach my kids restraint when the ubiquitous basket of tortilla chips is placed on the table the moment we sit down.  My kid are hungry, they inhale the chips before the entree arrives, and then they inevitably leave the restaurant complaining that their stomachs hurt.  Yet when I mention this likely outcome at the next Tex-Mex outing, my advice falls on deaf ears.  Sigh.

Striking the balance between satisfaction and overeating is an ever-present challenge in today’s food-abundant environment.  So what tactics do you use to teach your children the difference between satisfying themselves and stuffing themselves?

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Bettina Elias Siegel is a former lawyer, freelance magazine writer and blogger. In early 2010, merging her interest in children and food with her love of writing, she launched The Lunch Tray, a widely read, daily blog covering anything related to “kids and food, in school and out.”   With two children in Houston public schools, Siegel is also actively involved in trying to improve school food in the district as a member of the HISD Food Services Parent Advisory Committee and chairperson of the food/nutrition subcommittee of HISD’s School Health Advisory Council (SHAC).  This blog originally appeared on The Lunch Tray and on The Huffington Post.