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Eating Disorders

Worried About Your Child's Overeating? Here Are Some Tips

Teaching your child to flip the "off switch" can prevent a habit of overeating.

Source: Romrodphoto/Shutterstock

Nothing like having kids to reinforce the nature part of the nurture debate when it comes to personality traits. Forget things like hair and eye color; any parent with more than one kid knows how different and unique their personalities and temperaments are from day one.

I broaden this to what I call your kid’s “Food Personality.” It is rare for there to be kids in one family who all have similar eating styles. More often than not, I hear parents, including myself, talk about having one kid who’s a fairly picky eater and stops easily, while there are many children who have trouble stopping.

I call these kids my "Trouble Transitioners" and "Food Demanders." Since I coined this term for the six styles of eaters I write about in my book, I have come to see that some kids don’t only say: “More, more!” because they have trouble with transitions, but possibly also because they have a well-developed palate and love the stimulation of the tastes, smells, and the sensations of the food!

I think back to when my middle child would be eating bowls and bowls of cereal, with the biggest smile on his face, humming the whole time. I had to teach him how to flip the "off" switch by waiting and checking back in with his body 20 minutes later. This is the opposite of the Picky Eater: kids whose palates and senses don’t develop until they are older. (If at all, there are some adults who are still picky eaters, and not that "into" food.)

Trouble Transitioners are so stimulated by the tastes and sensations (early "foodies," and I say that in the best sense of the word) that they are on their third helping before they feel the signal that they are "done" or "full." By the time they hear the signal and stop, they are usually stuffed. This way of eating can, over time, become habitual, as the cue to feeling "done" and stopping eating is triggered after larger quantities. The obvious result can be weight issues, which create other problems.

Parents can worry about how to handle this without, at best, creating bad feelings and power struggles, or at worst, an eating disorder. (Although parents, you can let yourself off the hook—it takes more than that to create a true eating disorder; some disordered eating, perhaps, but not a full-blown eating disorder.)

So in the interest of giving your "foodies" some tools to prevent problems from developing, here are some tips:

1. Enjoy and show your kid that you love how much they love food and tastes. Celebrate this.

2. Teach them that they are their own “body expert,” and it is their responsibility to become the best “body detective” possible. This means listening carefully to their stomachs for the signal that they are done, or full. Educate them that some bodies take longer to send the signal; it can just be a whisper after one bowl of cereal, but they need to wait 20 minutes to hear it well.

3. While they are waiting, let them do an activity with you like clearing the table or doing the dishes. If they want more, leave their food on the table so they know they have access to it and can have it if their body tells them they are genuinely still hungry. (Avoids power struggles.)

4. Teach them how to listen to their bodies. Think of gradations of hunger/fullness on a scale from 1-7, from "starving" to "stuffed." Help them to listen carefully, eat when hungry, and stop when done or full.

5. There are some foods that lend themselves to stimulating your tongue and mouth to the point where it makes it hard to flip the “off switch.” Some salty foods, or sweet, can be hard to resist, depending on your palate. Teach your kid about this difference, and that their mouth and palate may simply be telling their brain: “More! More!” It’s kind of like a party happening in your mouth, and let’s face it: Who likes to stop the party?!

Teaching kids how to “stop and wait” is part of a skill training that can prevent eating problems from developing, and give them a resource for their developing relationship with food that can last a lifetime.

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