Fact. Healthy children cannot starve in 6 hours.
They will get hungry, sure, and whingey and clumsy, but they won’t actually starve.
So why are we so insistent about plying our kids with snacks every two hours? Why do we cook the four year old a sausage when the rest of the family is having roast chicken?
I see it all the time. Families setting for an hour long drive to the beach that might take an hour and a will pack boxes of crackers. Mums dropping their kids for play date will send along a few finger buns – ostensibly as a ‘thank-you-for-having-her’ gift, whereas really it says ‘she’s- going-to-get-hungry-and-I’m-not-entirely-sure-you’ll-feed-her-adequately.
It’s a rare toddler you see in a stroller without a packet of something crunchy to keep them happy as they cruise around the shopping centre.
I’ve done it myself. Mainly with my eldest, and I wish I hadn’t. He was the worst eater of my three; and at age two was addicted to Vegemite sandwiches.
It happened gradually… stealthily. A Vegemite sandwich was his favourite lunch. Fair enough, mine too. Then he began to ask for a Vegemite sandwich instead of cereal and fruit for breakfast. Not so bad, I thought - generations of Australians have grown up on Vegemite sandwiches. Not like I was giving him KFC chips and gravy for breakfast. But then, he started saying no to dinner. Pasta, meat, vegies, no no no. He’d hold out for a sandwich. I’d invariably relent and give him one – no mother wants their baby to go to bed hungry.
I asked the community nurse for advice. ‘Don’t make a big deal of it,’ she said, ‘Offer small quantities of other foods, it’s common for toddlers to be fussy.’
I might as well have thrown the other foods straight into the bin and eliminated the middle-man.
It went on for months. A year. Vegemite sandwiches morning noon and night and sometimes in between. The only variation on the theme was Vegemite toast. There was milk too, and the occasional banana, but that was it. Nothing would tempt him. He could not be bought. It was a Vegemite sandwich or nothing.
I worried and I bored my friends and family with our micro-drama. Then I asked our family doctor what to do. He said, ‘Give him nothing. This kid has a bad habit and he won’t change it unless he has to. It could go on for years.’
‘Give him nothing?’ I asked, ‘But he’ll starve!’
‘No, he won’t,’ said our doctor, ‘We use the word ‘starving’ so lightly in our society. Your boy barely knows what hunger is. Has he ever gone four hours without eating?’
‘Um, no,’ I said.
‘It takes more than a day for real hunger to kick in - the kind of hunger that will make you eat whatever’s offered. Choose a quiet weekend, give lots of water, but no milk, and no Vegemite sandwiches. Don’t get cross, don’t bribe. Just offer him something with some protein regularly – scrambled egg or baked beans or something like that. He’ll be fine.’
I clung to those words … ‘He’ll be fine,’ all thorough that weekend.