Why letting children choose what they eat is a recipe for disaster

I’ve given up television viewing other than DVD’s and rugby, and my main way of keeping in touch of what’s going in the outside world is the radio. Yesterday, I was out taking a walk with the dog and, plugged into my radio, was listening to a news story about an eight-year-old boy here in the UK who is, even at this tender age, weighing in at 15 stones (210 lbs, 95 kg). I read on the web this morning that this boy has broken four beds, five bikes and six toilet seats (mind you, that came from a tabloid but you get the idea). Apparently the boy in question cannot manage the 5-minute walk to school without becoming breathless, is bullied once he gets there. If he gets there: it’s said he misses classes for weeks on end because of his poor health.
During the radio item the mother of this child was interviewed, and it was put to her that her son’s plight was due to her feeding him unhealthy food. She acknowledged this, but then said something like: He won’t eat healthy food. I have to feed him something so I give him what he likes.

The mother is being accused of ‘abusing’ her son, and a paediatrician has suggested that she is ‘slowly killing him’.
This sort of sensationalism does jar a little with me, but I do believe he has a point. Food is obviously essential to life, but it can also be our death.

There is a myriad of reasons for how an eight-year-old boy can end up weighing 15 stones, but to my mind the fundamental problem lies in his mother’s attitude that her son ‘won’t’ eat healthy food and therefore is compelled to feed him what he chooses.
Although a liberal at heart, I’m not sure it’s such a good idea to let children decide what they eat. I’m trying here not to sound like a Victorian moralist, but discipline does seem to have gone out of the window a bit over the years. Now, couple this with that the fact that the food industry seems increasingly able to dream up seductive, addictive and taste-bud perverting foods and, quite frankly, we have a recipe for disaster.

Over the years, I’ve seen many children in my practice. Some are ‘picky eaters’, but others even from an early age seem to have very broad palates and, according to their parents, will ‘eat anything’. I’m always keen to learn from others’ experiences, so usually make a point of asking parents what they think may be responsible for their child’s eclectic eating. Invariably, the answer I get is something like Well, he/she has no choice. Basically, what this means is that the child is offered food, and if he or she doesn’t eat it, no alternatives are offered.

Now, starting on this tack early on in a child’s life is generally easier than introducing such measures later on. However, even in older children, while a more draconian eating regime will not go down well to begin with, they usually adapt quite quickly. They have to.

There is a risk that this heavyweight child is going to be taken into care. My heart goes out to both him and his mother. Rather than offering this mother nutritional advice (which she’s probably had her fill of), my suggestion is that she is helped to understand that giving her son free reign to choose what he eats is probably at the root of the problem. Taking a hard line here may be painful for both oft them in the short term, but I suspect with will save them from far more pain down the line.

5 Responses to Why letting children choose what they eat is a recipe for disaster

  1. Neil 1 March 2007 at 7:20 pm #

    My eldest and youngest sons (4.5 years difference) have very different diets. Oldest likes most veg, especially salad and fruitYoungest does not eat veg apart from a few chips occasionally), and rarely fruit (grapes perhaps)
    Both brought up fairly similarly when young though i accept there will have been some differences. I presume they have the same genes and characteristics as they are very alike in looks.

    I can only guess that their tastes were formed by the variation in their early diets, small though they seemed to be.

    The youngest who is nearly 20 does not get constipation despite a diet that has next to no roughage. You may think he deserves to, however. We did try to get him to eat veg, but once he learned to say no, neither threats nor rewards had any effect.

  2. Deirdre Brown 2 March 2007 at 9:38 pm #

    I am very worried about my 9 year-old granddaughter. She is very small and thin for her age and very pale. She, like her mother before her, is not really interested in food and likes very few things. She has recently become lacking in energy, especially for her schoolwork, which is a source of worry to us.
    She was taken to the doctor last autumn because we thought she might have been anaemic but this was not confirmed. Her mother has been reduced to taking her around the supermarket to see what she would like to eat but even this arouses no interest. Any suggestions would be welcome.

  3. ninja 3 March 2007 at 12:02 am #

    My son is 15 months old and is a very good eater, enjoying most vegetables and fruit, along with pasta, rice, mixed beans, lentil, quinoa, and a passion for cakes. Whilst at home it is fairly easy to ensure he has a good diet, obviously there are good and bad days. However, my concern is being back at work, previously I used to prepare his meals, but with age he has become more aware of the children around him especially during meal times. Recently I have stop provding lunch and left this to the childcarers. The food provided is the standard food given to little ones – sandwiches, pizza, cheese and tomato based foods. Which he enjoys. He is still eating the meals at home, and I only hope this continues to be the case!

    Children will always push the boundaries testing there parents, and unless you guide how will they know. Increasing children rule the roost, making life increasing difficult for both parties – sorry but I think discipline is required, something I had not agreed with before my son (I had a very Victrorian upbringing).

  4. helen 4 March 2007 at 10:07 pm #

    with all the idiotic dietry advice going around about low fat high carb diets it is no wonder people throw their hands up in despair & let the kids pick what they want to eat. It is inevitable that our society will go into some type of decline especially with the attitude that no one is wrong & it is someone elses fault that you made the wrong choice. Time to grow up mums & dads you are not meant to be your kid’s best friends, at least until they can grow up & appreciate you & your efforts at trying to raise good responsible for their own actions adults. So you might be unpopular for a few minutes of their lives you are the ones who took on the responsibility to raise the next generation of adults so stop giving them everything they think they want & start giving them what they need.

  5. michelle 4 August 2014 at 9:44 am #

    My friend has four children has always said children won’t starve themselves. I always offer a decent variety of food for meals and snacks/smoothies etc. I think it’s good to eat reasonably healthy and try to lead by example. I couldn’t stand a lot of veges etc when I was younger but there was nowhere near the range of food available that there is now.

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