How often have you said this phrase in your kitchen or at a restaurant during a meal with your child? I know that I can probably count in my two hands the number of meals when I did not use this phrase. Claire is almost 7 years old, and while tall and healthy appearing, she weighs only 41.5 lbs! Those who know me would likely say that it’s no surprise as my Chinese heritage bestowed upon me a fairly petite frame. Yet I remember distinctly how a small judgmental voice often annoyed me from within, when she failed to gain any weight between ages 2 to 4, telling me that I must not be a good mother and have failed my primary duty of simply nourishing my child.
I often describe to others that Claire eats “like a bird”. I have heard that the size of a child’s stomach is similar to his/her fist, albeit it is able to stretch out when filled with food. Claire must have a stomach no bigger than the size of an apricot or plum with faulty elasticity! Since she was a toddler, I remember negotiating with her, “Claire-bear, just one more bite”. What is it about that one more bite that makes a mother somehow feel that all would be alright and her job is complete? Does that one more bite truly make a child “healthy” as opposed to being “undernourished”? Why do I insist repeatedly, day after day, meal after meal, that my child eats “one more bite”? I know it’s not just me. When we vacation with my brother/sister-in-law, I hear them repeat the same phrase over and over to our niece and nephew. Both of them have always been way ahead of the growth curve for weight and height for their age and wear at least 1, usually 2, sizes ahead of their age. Yet it does not matter, they still ask their child to eat one more bite.
My sister Nancy, who is a registered dietician and nutritionist with a Masters in public health and has worked for the past 6 years in a job dealing with school lunch program for children, pointed out to me a few years ago that children can and should be allowed to regulate their own food intake. She told me that children need the opportunity to exercise their right to stop eating when they feel full, and that by not respecting their expression of fullness or desire to stop eating, adults may be taking away their ability to learn how to listen and learn self-regulating feeding behaviors which are critical lifelong. I remember how defensive I became despite recognizing much wisdom in her statement. I quickly pointed out to her that if and when she has children of her own, she would be more understanding of why I feel compelled meal after meal to encourage my child to eat more. First, I would be more inclined to not force the issue and not say “one more bite” if Claire does not routinely follow up her declaration of “I am full” with the question “what is for dessert?” within less than 3 seconds after the first declaration. I am certainly not the only mother who can expect these words from their children as surely as knowing the sun will rise every morning. Second, those of us who are not blessed with a child who devours green or any vegetables, like my niece, know that the “one more bite” is not specific to any one item, but a general negotiation for whatever on that plate which we believe to hold such great nutritional value that the acknowledge of the completion of a successful feeding event is not possible without that one “final bite”. So that “one more bite” can be the protein on the plate, the vegetable on the plate, or generally whatever it is they are not eating and our negotiating point for power and control before we allow the non-nutritious dessert or sweets to follow a meal.
My husband Dave often reminds me that I am the one who introduced the concept of “dessert” to our child and family, as I somehow decided in my mind that it’s an essential part of the dining experience in the American life. He knows as I often share with him that I grew up in Taiwan where we did not have desserts after meals, simply fresh fruit. Fresh fruit is offered after every meal and whenever company was over. Claire was raised to eat fresh fruit pretty much three meals a day and still does for the most part. But I must admit, it is I who over the years have given in to the habit of allowing her something sweet after dinner, and this is why that “one more bite” has become a critical factor in our everyday dinner experience. That something sweet may be a piece of candy, or a couple of cookies. As I describe in my book, “A Healthier Wei”, we at least make sure she eats it right after dinner and not later. “One more bite” is so much more than about that tablespoon full of food isn’t it? It is about control, convincing ourselves that if we were not in control of feeding our children, then what would become of their diet and health? Surely Claire would simply stop and underfeed herself right? Surely she would choose to maintain more space in that tiny stomach for more junk food like cookies and candy? Surely she would not simply regulate herself to eat more vegetables right?
I have an excuse, the Chinese are notorious for overfeeding their infants/toddlers, as traditionally, I assume that having a skinny child may reflect on being in a lesser socioeconomic class or reflect inability to have food to feed them. I grew up watching every child around me being overfed, to the point of gagging and even vomit. I was told repeatedly in early childhood that if one left grains of rice in the bowl, then one would grow up marrying someone with pox scars on their face. As the Chinese culture is one that emphasizes many morals in almost all children’s fables and stories, I can see the value placed on making sure that food is not wasted. While I am thankful my husband has a great complexion and has a scar free face, I know even now when I encounter Asian families, especially if they have a live-in nanny from China with them, often I find out that those infants/toddlers are being denied the ability to refuse feeding. So what about the rest of non-Chinese mothers? Did the Italian mothers do the same? I assume across cultures, women and caretakers everywhere always push “one more bite” out of loving intentions. But perhaps it is time that the adults who spend the time and emotional energy planning, preparing, and wanting our families to enjoy the meals we prepare take a leap of faith and give our children a chance to decide if they need one more bite. I have to admit that I do not know if Claire will eat that last bite, but I have learned that by not creating an atmosphere of power struggle and control with her during mealtime, all 3 of us enjoy our time together much more and there is much less anger/resentment/frustration from my part.
“One more bite”, is it really worth it? I don’t believe so. I have challenged myself for 2013 to not use this phrase, and simply see what happens. I never ask Dave to take one more bite, nor myself or our dog. Surely children have appetites that vary from day to day, as we adults do. Yet we can’t seem to accept that and must ensure that at every meal they eat as much as possible. Of course, I am only describing some of the children. There are many families whom I have met, who work hard to stop their overweight children from taking that “one more bite.” That’s another story for another time. For now, I have promised myself that I will respect Claire’s autonomy to decide for herself when she is full and when she is hungry.
Dr. Julie Wei is a pediatric ear, nose, and throat specialist and the author of A Healthier Wei. As a mother herself, Dr. Wei is a passionate advocate for improving children's health through better diet and dietary habits. She has been committed to helping parents learn how to eliminate their child's ear, nose, and throat problems simply by reducing excessive sugar and dairy intake, as well as minimizing habitual late night snacking. She hopes to raise awareness for the need for accountability by both medical professionals and parents to ensure that children are not prescribed or take unnecessary medications long term.
When she is not in the clinic, operating room, or conducting research, you will find her in the kitchen preparing food with love along with her daughter Claire. If you sit next to her on the plane, she will likely share with you information about how to minimize choking hazards in young children, and many other tips for improving your child's health.