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When your child wants to eat everything in sight

Three children sitting at a white table eating

Cartoon kid eating messy - when your child wants to eat everything in sightLooking back, I should have known the first time my son’s jaw clamped tightly around my breast without guidance or prodding. “Oh my, he knows what to do with that!” the nurse exclaimed, as I looked on with a mix of wonderment and terror. This was indeed the beginning of Anthony’s gluttonous ways.

Other hints came along the way, like the countdown to the loud sucking slurp of air as he gulped the last drop of milk telling me he was finished, and yet not so finished since I had to wrestle the bottle out of his mouth. “That’s it, you’re done!” I would yell, frustrated over not being able to produce enough milk to satiate his appetite. Months later, when I complained to the pediatrician that he was still waking up in the middle of the night for a feeding, she said he just had to unlearn the middle-of-the-night feeding pattern. I was to give him water instead of milk to trick him into thinking it wasn’t worth waking up for. Well, that first attempt of trickery ended with him guzzling the water bottle dry in his usual tempo, except he wouldn’t go back to sleep because he was still hungry.

Maybe it had nothing to do with learned behaviour. Maybe genes were to blame for his voracious appetite. Shortly after giving birth, my father cradled his first grandchild and beamed proudly over the nine-pound bundle. As he rocked him back and forth, he repeated a phrase that would foretell their favourite pastime. “Waaaait, you just wait and see what we’re going to eat together when you grow up!”

It got better, and worse, in that first year of his life. His appetite was more easily satiated when he began eating solid food, but then the problem shifted. Every time he saw someone eating, his eyes grew wide and he howled for a piece of the action. I resorted to hiding behind kitchen cupboards to eat and peeking over the edge to make sure he hadn’t moved within closer range.

Then it got scary. Once during supper, he played happily with his spaghetti, squashing it in his fists and shoving it into his mouth. After the pasta, he gobbled some salad and let out a loud cough. Then his face turned splotchy blue and he stopped breathing. I sat frozen and shocked for a few harrowing seconds as I waited for my brain to catch up and tell me what to do. Before I could react, a piece of wilted lettuce projected out of his mouth onto the tray of his high chair. Without a whimper or a tear, his plump fist snatched the exhausted piece of lettuce and stuffed it back in his mouth before anyone could take it away. Even in the face of suffocation, the kid still wanted to eat!

Eventually, somewhere during the terrible hungry twos, I knew for certain this food obsession wasn’t another growth spurt or a passing phase. I awoke in the middle of the night to hear him crying out. Dazed from sleep, I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. But there was no denying it when he repeated it a second time. As he tossed about in his sleep, he yelled out in a demanding voice: “I want a bagel with A LOT of cream cheese!” Yes, the poor child was consumed by food even in his dreams.

As he got older, I worried that he would grow up to be overweight because of his appetite. At every annual check-up I shared my concern about his humongous appetite with his doctor. Although tall for his age, his weight began to creep over the height-weight balance he had managed to maintain in his growth chart. The pediatrican said his weight could become an issue if we weren’t careful. She advised me to limit treats to special occasions and up his physical activities. Treats weren’t the problem as I already limited their availability; it was the portion size of his meals that worried me. I tried to control it when he was home but I couldn’t police everything he put in his mouth. I decided to teach him some of the tricks I used to make healthy eating choices. I taught him to read the serving size on packaged snacks, so that he knew a cookie snack meant two or three cookies, not a stack as tall as the milk glass. Ultimately, he wanted to know where on the nutrition label it said how long before you could have another serving.

I needed allies in this battle, so I enlisted my parents’ help when he went for a visit or a sleepover; they promised to enforce good eating habits. The problem was they were simply in awe when they put a plate of food in front of him; watching him eat was part of their pleasure, and eating was his. They were co-dependents in this battle with food. When I asked Anthony if his grandparents gave him snacks when they shouldn’t have, he said, “What snacks? You know they don’t buy the kind of snacks I like. When I ask them for a snack, it’s epic meal time!”

I shared my concerns with other parents hoping to find answers or solace in those with the same worries. Did other parents feel like the food police? How did they know if they were doing enough to make sure their kids ate well? Was everyone worried like me? I noticed most parents were quick to lament how much their children preferred sugary snacks over a plate of veggies but the conversation usually strayed from there, especially when their child was obviously overweight. Instead, parents used cutesy phrases like ‘overactive taste buds’ or ‘future food critic’ and dismissed my worries with assumptions like, ‘don’t worry, it’s baby fat’ or ‘it will resolve itself as he grows.’ It was rare to find a parent of a ravenous eater who readily admitted my inner fear: Would my kid grow up to be overweight?

One parent, whose son’s size and tastes matched my son’s, admitted her messages of balanced eating missed the mark time and again. Her son understood that fresh fruit was better than a bag of chips, but his version of balance was snacking on cherries while dipping every second one in Nutella. When I asked what her pediatrican thought, she confessed, “I stopped taking my kids to the pediatrican after he told me they were fat. He told me right in front of my daughter (who was 10 at the time) and she refused to go back!” This made me wonder about some doctors’ bedside manner but also if maybe some parents didn’t notice or admit their child was at an unhealthy weight. Add the sobering childhood obesity statistics to the mix, and how’s a parent of a ravenous eater supposed to cope?

Children obviously come in different shapes and sizes and grow at different rates, but generally changes in height and weight follow a regular pattern as they grow. I realized helping Anthony tame his appetite was going to take time and lots of patience, especially since research shows that the longer a child remains overweight, the chances are that he or she will carry this weight into adulthood.

Back at our house, the hours after supper were a combination of winding down and winding up. A bedtime snack was always followed by reading together, or him playing while I wrote in my journal. Once, I asked if he wanted me to write something in my journal for him. He rolled his eyes upward as he reflected. “Yeah sure, write that I’m hungry.” Although I laughed aloud, he was serious.

His passion for food wasn’t limited to what he put in his mouth, it spilled over into his descriptions, so a simple query of “What do you want for breakfast?” was met with “Two eggs sunny side up, yolks that dunk like quicksand and a glass of orange burst juice… please?” I can’t recall how many times I’ve been declared the world’s best mom at the kitchen table.

Food and weight gain were a recurring struggle up until he went to high school. His passion for all things edible didn’t change, but by 14 he had shot up to a robust height just shy of six feet. I still fathom at his size since he’s the product of average-sized parents. In some ways, it’s a consolation for all the worry and fighting that centered around eating, but more importantly, I know that my watchfulness has paid off. Now, he’s more aware and concerned of the fuel he puts in his body and the eating choices he makes.

When I mention maybe turning his passion into a profession by becoming a gourmet chef, he replies, “I’d rather be a food taster, that way, I’d get paid to eat.”

Montreal-based writer Voula Plagakis honed her cooking skills while raising her ravenous eater whose favourite lines are ‘I’m still hungry’ and ‘I’m feeling a tad peckish’.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, November/December 2011.

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