Family matters: Small tales of a big eater

Most parents are over the moon to see their child tuck into a plate of raw vegetables. But mother-of-two Louisa Wilkins asks, can a child can have too much of a good thing?

By Louisa Wilkins, Features Editor, Aquarius magazine
00:00 March 1, 2012

Last summer, a camping trip to southern Oman meant 12 hours each way in a car by myself with my two kids. This wasn't a problem; I relished the chance to have my children as a captive audience away from friends, TV and toys. The only issue was how much food would I need to take to keep my perma-hungry three-year-old son satisfied en route? The answer: More than you think.

My son could eat for England. Scratch that, Great Britain. He eats like no man child has ever eaten before. If he shares with you, it's like a great gift being bestowed on you from above, and when he's hungry, those who can run for cover.

On the surface, it's not an issue. He eats healthily - on an average day he eats enough fruit and veg sticks to open a small market and his preferred snack à la mode is porridge. He's growing and healthy, which I think means he hasn't got worms, and he still eats three square meals per day. But when in the course of one day, he'd eaten more than me and my daughter combined, I started wondering if there wasn't something else at play. Is it oral fixation? Or a way of feeling in control? Or, is eating his version of a security blanket?

His father said, "I think he's fine and I think you read too many parenting books." This may be true - I do tend to look for some deep emotional meaning in everything. And this is no different.

First stop, Carmen Benton. As a parenting educator and educational consultant at LifeWorks Counselling and Development, three-year-olds are in her line of business. She says, "It's good that he's eating healthily, but if he was 15 or 25, would this constant eating be appropriate? It's fine now, but when he's old enough to help himself to chips, what will happen?" A vision of my son aged 25, and obese, eating an entire French baguette for lunch, flashes before my eyes. Carmen has my attention.

She says, "It's normal for two-year-olds to graze. But by three, they need to be getting used to a routine of eating five times a day - three meals, two snacks - at two or three-hour intervals, and that's it. Halas."

Changing my constant grazer into a routine eater sounds like a painful process of tantrums and, frankly, not one I'm sure I can bear. Carmen says, "Don't be afraid of tantrums. They're just his way of expressing frustration, and that's OK. But you know what? He is three... there are some things he doesn't get to choose."

I understand. I wouldn't let him choose his bedtime, or whether he goes to school, but his sister eats like a sparrow, so it seems to be more down to personality than parenting... could it be a control strategy? Carmen says, "Young children only have control over three things - eating, sleeping and going to the bathroom. I see many parents stuck in power struggles over food. Give him a healthy form of power by involving him in planning, shopping and preparing of meals." We do this already - my son is like a burgeoning Jamie Oliver. He loves cooking so much that when I asked him what he wants to be when he grows up, he said, "A cooker." So, it's probably not about power.

What about the security blanket theory? Could he be a comfort eater? "It's unlikely at this age," says Carmen, "but it could become a habit, which, in adulthood, could become an emotional crutch."

So, none of my emo-theories hold true. He's a healthy, happy, growing boy with an above-average tendency to eat. Carmen says, "When an issue arises, work out how much of it is yours, and yours alone, and fix it. Children need to come to the table hungry and be allowed to stop eating when they're full, so they learn to recognise their body's hunger cues. The beautiful word here is ‘No' - parents in Dubai don't seem to use it enough."

I feel reprimanded. She is right, though. I can see myself, when being badgered for the umpteenth snack since breakfast, saying, "No, we're just about to have lunch!" then chopping a carrot. It's my fault, and mine alone. I've allowed him to eat from sunrise to sunset, thinking it was fine because he was eating healthy food. I've got him into this mess, and it's my job to get him out of it. Simple as that.

There's no underlying emotional trigger, no deeper issue to resolve. As much as I hate to admit it, his Dad might be right (for once). Maybe I do need to lay off the parenting manuals.

Sign up for Carmen's free parenting workshop Food Glorious Food, March 18, 7.30pm. Visit