My kids have a lot of children round to play and whilst most ask if they want a snack or a drink, there's one or two that have taken to helping themselves to food. The first few times, I found myself stumped when I walked into the kitchen to find a seven-year-old girl or a six-year-old boy staring in my fridge.
"Oh," I said, "urm, are you hungry? Is there something I can get you?" But in the last few weeks, I've got stricter. "Actually," I say. "We don't help ourselves to food in this house. We ask first."
"Really?" said one, genuinely surprised. "We just go to the cupboard if we're hungry at home."
It got me thinking. Should I be more lenient, not just with them, but my own kids? Maybe it would help with teaching them independence and, as long as I have only healthy foods in, encourage them to make good food choices?
Or actually, would they just wind up eating the wrong things (the reality is I do buy some rubbish foods as we're all partial to the odd kitkat in this house) at the wrong times and quite possibly too much of it?
Nicole Rothband, dietitian and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association (BDA) thinks it's sheer madness to give kids free rein to snacking. "Children, especially younger ones, don't have the capability to make good food choices, so even if you only had healthy foods in, there's a good chance they'd fill themselves up with it just before a meal. Or they'll pick at a meal, knowing they can reach for the snack cupboard afterwards instead. In other words, they'll start becoming grazers and eat inadequately at meal times and that establishes poor eating habits for the future."
If you do have unhealthy foods in – and let's face it, most of us do – Rothband says allowing children to help themselves might as well be a short-cut to obesity. "There's a lot of talk among dietitians at the moment around mindless eating – that is, eating for the sake of it and when you're watching the telly or doing something else, without focusing on appreciating the food. That's the last thing you want to encourage in kids."
Most children have a naturally sweet tooth, she adds. "Largely becaue they are growing and want the quickest, easiest fuel, they are most likely to grab the high-fat, high-sugar snacks over anything healthy."
Jason Bedford, clinical adviser to the IDH group, which specialise in dentistry, agrees. "My worry is that where children help themselves, they will naturally gravitate towards the food groups which can cause the most damage."
And it's not just food that he thinks parents should control. "The repeated intake of sugary drinks is a primary cause of tooth decay, and it is easy to predict that children choosing for themselves would reach for such products rather than a less damaging healthier alternative, such as water. It is crucial that parents take an active rather than passive role here."
But Alex Masters, a mum of two children aged 11 and 8, disagrees. "Surely, the best way to educate children about eating well is to let them take responsibility of what goes into their bodies from a young age. We have had a policy in our house ever since the children were at school of being allowed to take food when they want, provided they eat their meals. Because we talk a lot about healthy choices, I find that whilst sometimes they head straight for the biscuit tin, they are just as likely to go for the fruit bowl."
Tracey Warmington agrees – to a certain extent. "In our house, the children's treats are deliberately stored in a cupboard accessible to little ones. This is because we think it's important for our four-year-old to be independent enough to get her own treats if she's allowed one. However, we have taught her that she must always ask us first," she says.
"This allows her to be self-sufficient, but it also enables us to teach her about trust. On a morning during the weekend when we have breakfast later, she often comes into our bedroom and asks us if she can have some raisins. She then fetches them from downstairs and brings them up for her and her sister."
There was one occasion when she was around two-and-a-half, when she helped herself to a chocolate, she admits. "At that point, my partner suggested we move where the treats were stored. But I felt reluctant to do that because I wanted to explain what she had done wrong and explain why and then put our trust into her that she wouldn't help herself again, even though she could. It has never happened since and she does always ask."
In some households, it's not just snacks that children help themselves to, but entire meals. "My son is six-and-a-half and at home, he helps himself to breakfast most days," says Joan Small. "But he knows what he is and isn't allowed to have. Breakfast is cereal or toast and a glass of juice. He knows how much he should have too and there have only been a couple of occasions where he's let the bowl overflow with cheerios. He knows not to waste food, so will give himself a certain amount to start and if he's still hungry after, he can have a bit more," she says.
"I think it's important to give children a sense of responsibility, but make sure they also have boundaries."
What do you think? Do you let your kids help themselves to food?