The Competent Parent: Respecting Appetite


Headshot2011Welcome to our weekly online series on parenting advice with local expert Dr. Deborah Wood.

Respecting Appetite

Dear Dr. Debbie,

Dinnertime has become a battleground between my husband and our six-year-old son. My opinion is that children should be fed when they’re hungry so they will learn to listen to and respond to their appetite signals. I’m very nutrition conscious and have only healthy foods in the house, so if dinner wasn’t particularly appealing (or his appetite was low for whatever reason) we usually have something like peanut butter on banana or cheese sticks for a bedtime snack. My husband’s view is that our son should eat when food is put in front of him, and if he doesn’t, then no other food should be offered until the next day.

By the way, our son is slim and full of energy, and Dad has put on a few extra pounds in the past couple of years.

Mom in the Middle

Dear Mom,

We can save a discussion of authoritarian parenting (your husband’s style) for another time, and take a scientific approach to understanding appetite. It’s part of an energy cycle. You can observe hunger coming on as energy levels (physical endurance, mental clarity, and emotional control) decrease. Fewer calories are needed if someone has been sitting around the house all day. Lots of physical activity or a growth spurt and your child is apt to be more hungry than usual.

Your son was born with an awareness of his hunger. Early on, he had to learn how to get some cooperation—by making faces and noises—to get his hunger satisfied. (Feeding a baby carefully measured amounts on a rigid timetable is thankfully disappearing from advice to new parents.) The thought of food gets saliva going in the mouth. Saliva starts the work of breaking cells into the molecules of vitamins, minerals, and proteins for the gut to absorb. Teeth and stomach acids assist the process. As the stomach fills, appetite slows—with signaling from the stomach to the brain—to the point where even our most favorite foods are unappealing. Until what has been eaten is nearly used up, there is no appetite.

If we honor our body’s signals, we eat when we are hungry and stop when we are full. Food cravings are often due to specific nutrients the body needs. For example: iron to overcome fatigue (in chocolate, but also in green veggies), protein for growth, and carbohydrates to replenish calories burned in physical activity. Unfortunately, this system can be overridden. Someone else’s idea of when, what, and how much our body should have can lead to poor eating habits, poor nutrition, and obesity. The multi-billion dollar food marketing industry has the profits to show how easy this is. The natural appetite system also can be derailed when eating becomes an emotional issue between parent and child. “I’ll be so happy if you eat all your dinner,” “I’ll give you candy for a reward,” or “You’re going to be punished if you don’t eat all your dinner.” A child who has lost connection to his own appetite signals can grow into an adolescent or adult with an unhealthy relationship with food.

Have a rational discussion about the purpose of food with your husband so you can stick to your instinct about dinner time and help your son remain mindful of his own metabolism. If his appetite perks up later in the evening, and it doesn’t seem to interfere with a good night’s sleep, a nutritious bedtime snack is a logical way to complete the day’s energy requirements. Hopefully Daddy will agree that he wants his child to avoid food issues or an eating disorder later on.

Let’s try to eliminate father-son conflict, or husband-wife tension, at the table. Stress is hard on the digestive system.

Dr. Debbie

Dr. Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She holds a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at

What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at [email protected]