“Are You Full?” — Teaching Kids When to Say When at the Table

by Bettina Elias Siegel on March 27, 2013

About 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 today’s 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?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below.

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{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

AGeorgsson March 27, 2013 at 11:27 am

I definitely tried the, are you still hungry question. The answer is always yes. I also ask the kids to finish their water before taking seconds because I think sometimes what we take for hunger is really just thirst. And I try to instill the 80 percent rule, but it’s not easy.

I completely agree that woman our age need far less food than we usually are happy to eat, and it’s surely true for our kids in this time of ubiquitous food offerings. It’s hard in the midst of a meal to rember these things. Good post.

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Aviva Goldfarb March 27, 2013 at 11:33 am

Love this post, Bettina, so wise. I agree with you about trying to have kids only snack on fruits and vegetables, especially if they are hungry before dinnertime, and I try to do the same, but I am definitely guilty of eating more than necessary at most meals, especially if we eat in a restaurant.

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Casey March 27, 2013 at 11:58 am

Having lived in Japan and France, I had many of the same thoughts reading the NYT piece. I have been trying to teach my children Intuitive Eating but have to push back against many of the forces working against them listening to their internal hunger cues (food marketing, addictive nature of some foods, cultural messages of food= reward, love , entertainment and fun, and yes, the bowl of tortilla chips). I am trying to create space for my family to be able to do that in a food environment that gives us anything but space to listen to our own internal cues. Thank you for a wonderful post!

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Jeanne @JollyTomato March 27, 2013 at 12:00 pm

Great post, Bettina – I have been trying to get myself to remember this too, but it’s definitely difficult given all of the external signals we get about “all you can eat,” etc. Sorry to hear about the pain you had to go through – Hope you’re feeling better!

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Llhonari March 27, 2013 at 12:04 pm

Thanks, Bettina. I use some of the same rules mentioned above (only fruit or veggie as a snack before a meal, asking if still hungry, finish a glass of water before a second helping). Hopefully this will kick in once the impulsive age is over (is it ever?).

What I do in the Tex-Mex or bread basked scenario is politely decline when the server comes around to replenish the chips. Also, I limit pre-meal bread to one serving only, and ask the server to take the basket away afterwards. Out of sight, out of mind!

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Amanda March 27, 2013 at 12:19 pm

Another thing that works well for us is only putting a certain amount on plates in the kitchen, not having it out on the table, and not letting my 4 year old dish up his own…he is ALWAYS “hungry” and the fruit or veggie trick always works between meals and after…instead of seconds I make him drink his milk and if he does finish it and is still hungry I give the fruit option which he sometimes goes for. When he does I know he actually is still hungry, works on my girls as well, but they aren’t “hungry” as often, and my oldest does a really good job of not over eating, which I can’t always say for myself especially pregnant with #4 and able to eat a lot more than I normally do! I always try to get my kids to eat all their veggies, which doesn’t always happen, but never make them clear their plate no matter how little they eat.

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Jennie March 27, 2013 at 12:20 pm

At places that serve chips, bread, popcorn, etc before the meal, I simply send it back or ask that it not be brought out …

Also, I do the same thing … “Are you still hungry? Well, before you can have more “main dish”, you need to finish your vegetables/fruit.”

If they are hungry, then that will fill them up – not the bread, pasta, protein, etc.

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Bri March 27, 2013 at 12:22 pm

I’m so happy to read this today! It’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot, actually. As far as my kids go, we’ve always tried to ask things like “have you had enough?” or “Are you still hungry?” or “Does your tummy want it, or does your mouth just like it?” — these are habits that came from having a child whose pervasive sensory perception challenges make it hard for him to interpret his body’s signals and therefore very difficult to regulate food intake. But I’ve noticed lately that even in myself, I have rarely felt TRULY HUNGRY at a mealtime in the past month or so. I take this as a sure sign that I’m eating too much at a clip. It’s so important to really pay attention to ourselves — and yet, so hard to do!

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Sally Kuzemchak March 27, 2013 at 1:56 pm

Great topic! I ask my four year old (who is forever asking for snacks), “What is your tummy telling you?” We also leave his dinner on the table for about an hour after dinner, because he’s often hungry for dinner about 30-45 minutes after the rest of us are! :)

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Christi March 27, 2013 at 10:16 pm

My hubby & I work hard at this daily. When it’s meal time, we give them portions appropriate for their size (fist size amounts to match each child’s fist) & then if they ask for more they must drink all milk first and can then have is more meat/veggies only. Still hungry? – fruit or veggies only. As for snacks, our kids are allowed one small bowl of ‘junk’ food per day and once that is gone, they can have as much fruits or veggies, nuts as they want. We have learned to keep plenty of yogurt, cheese, hummus & veggies in the fridge and a HUGE bowl of fruit on the counter :-) They really are learning to enjoy these things-most difficult battle continues to be OUTSIDE our home!

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