There is disturbing news on the family food front.
Scientists have found that when left alone, kids eat well. They don't overeat. This means there is no nutritional need for kids to "clean their plates." It means that underneath the chaos of mealtime with children, there is a caloric order. And more importantly, it undercuts parental nagging.
I was so shaken that I read the study, "The Variability of Young Children's Energy Intake," by Leann L. Birch, a psychologist at the University of Illinois at Champagne-Urbana, in the Jan. 24 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine. I also read an accompanying editorial on the study by Dr. Gilbert B. Forbes, a pediatrician who teaches at the University of Rochester in Rochester, N.Y.
Although I was skeptical of the study at first, I ended up being impressed.
These people had been there. When, for example, Birch and her colleagues measured how much food the 15 preschoolers in the survey ate, the researchers even took spillage into account. And when you are dining with the 2- to 5-year-old set, spillage is a major component of the meal.
The researchers also said that kids are unpredictable eaters. They said that one morning they may eat 100 calories at breakfast, and the next morning eat 350 calories even though the food at both meals is the same. This confirms what I have discovered after spending four bucks on a box of some newfangled breakfast cereal. One day the kids wolfed it down, the next day they wouldn't touch it.
The researchers gave the kids normal food to choose from. It wasn't all bean curd and brown crackers. There were waffles, bagels, soup, bananas, cookies, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, broccoli, even cookies, brownies and chips.
The researchers found that while the kids may eat lightly at one of the day's meals, they compensate for it at another.
And while the amount of calories consumed varied from meal to meal, the children tended to take in the same total amount of calories each day.
What parents should do at mealtime, the researchers suggested, was to provide kids with a variety of nutritious food, then let the kids decide how much to eat. Grown-ups should not try to stuff parentally approved foods down their kids.
While this guideline made sense, it is hard for parents to abide by. Even Dr. Forbes, the editorial-writing pediatrician, admitted to once telling his children, "Don't eat those cookies, you'll spoil your supper."
I liked a pediatrician who acknowledged that raising kids was pretty much an on-the-job-training affair, where mistakes were tolerated.
And Dr. Forbes won points with me when he mentioned one of my favorite New Yorker cartoons. It showed a defiant child sitting at the table declaring "I say it's spinach, and I say the hell with it!"
So I called Dr. Forbes up in Rochester and talked with him about the impact this study might have on supper table behavior.
The study could, he said, quiet common parental worries about whether their youngsters were getting enough food to grow up "big and strong." The study shows that kids have an innate ability to regulate how much they eat. And, kids grow very rapidly until the age of 2, then, he said, the growth rate slows down. Often a child is still growing even though the worried parent fails to recognize the change.
After talking with Dr. Forbes, I came up with a few implications on my own.
First, if parents stop insisting that kids clean their plates, thousands of supper-table captives will be freed. No longer will kids be held hostage at the table until they demolish the hills of green beans, the forests of broccoli, the dreaded walls of Brussels sprouts.
Secondly, I predict that more research will be done on this orderly mechanism in kids that controls how much they eat. And I predict that whatever this controlling mechanism is, researchers will discover it goes bonkers in the presence of pizza.
And finally, as for parental nagging, I think that while this study hurts it, it doesn't wipe it out. Nagging is like drinking another beer, or eating another piece of pie.
You try to cut back, but more often than not, the need to nag is overpowering.
Young sages of the supper table