It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.

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Entries in Hunger (23)


Hunger vs Appetite

We have an almost-pathological fear of kids being hungry in this country.

I'm not talking about real hunger. I'm talking about the kind of hunger that people naturally develop in between meals. You know, the old grumbling-in-the-tummy kind of hunger.

So here's the question: "Should I feed my toddler on demand or on a schedule?"

The answer is a hybrid. Feed your child on a flexible schedule that imposes some structure but which is responsive to your child's hunger.

For many parents, helping their children avoid hunger seems like a rational strategy. 

  • Hungry children are prone to meltdowns (and, for some reason, this usually happens when in public)
  • Hungry children don't do well in school
  • Hungry children are sometimes harder to feed

But avoiding hunger is the wrong habit to teach children.

Sometimes a little hunger goes a long way. Read The Upside of Hunger to find out why. Here's one reason:

Toddlers need to learn to connect the feeling (pangs in their tummies) with the problem (hunger) and the solution (eating).  If they never feel hungry, they’ll never learn this connection. 

Help your children build an appetite: Implement the Eating Zones Rule

Eating Zones are regular blocks of time that you create—one for each daily meal and snack. On any given day you can choose one time during each Eating Zone when you will offer something to eat.

Eating Zones help you avoid constant on-demand grazing, but they do not snap you into a rigid schedule.

  • Look at your typical day to see when you normally provide meals and snacks.
  • Account for variables, such as naps, outings, school, or your work schedule.
  • Evaluate when your child is usually hungry, when she is too tired, too hungry, or too distracted to eat. 
  • Use this information to create blocks of time each day when you can serve a meal or a snack.

The importance of Eating Zones is that they designate some times as eating times and other times as NO-EATING times.

You create opportunities for eating, but let your children choose whether and how much to eat.

And if your child wants to eat during a no-eating zone, respond compassionately, but help her wait. And remember...

  • You can always move the next Eating Zone up so the wait isn't too long
  • The wait is where the learning happens

The structure of Eating Zones:

  1. Creates a predictable parenting dynamic. Read You Can't Make Me Eat It! to find out why predictability is important.
  2. Constructively shares control with your child. Read The Hunger Dilemma.
  3. Prevents unnecessary snacking. Read What to Do About Snacks

In the perfect world, children would be taught to eat when (and only when) they were hungry. That's not the world we live in.

But in the world we live in, children are usually required to eat at meal times—regardless of how much or how often they've eaten throughout the day. That is a lesson in overeating.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~


How Parents Teach Kids to Lie About Hunger

Should you let your kids stop eating even if you suspect they're not quite full?

Or let them eat if you know they're not hungry?

The surprising answer is yes.

Otherwise, kids just learn to lie.

In most families, there is only one legitimate reason to eat: hunger.

That means if kids want to eat something they have to say they’re hungry, even if they’re not. “That cake looks good; I’m hungry.”

It also means that if they don’t want to eat something kids often have to say they’re not hungry, even if they are. “Those peas look gross; I’m not hungry.” (Sometimes kids also say, “I don’t like it,” to get out of eating.)

I don’t really think of this as lying, per se. Rather, children are working with the tools we give them. And, I don't think parents do this intentionally.

A story to illustrate the problem:

One day I was at a birthday lunch for a young child. Among the celebrants was a 5 year old girl. The little girl had a lovely lunch and when she was full she stopped eating. "I'm full," she announced.

So far so good.

About 30 minutes later, when the birthday cake came out: "Yum. I'm starving!"

I know there are parents out there who will say that it's possible this girl was hungry. After all, a half-hour had passed! I don't buy it. 

Teach your kids to become fluent in the "language" of hunger—no matter how young they are.

Eating is a complicated business because people eat for all sorts of reasons and kids need to know this.

For instance, in addition to Tummy Hunger, people often eat because of the following reasons: 

  • Taste Hunger; something looks good. When this happens, it’s best to have a small portion, just a taste.
  • Practical Hunger, they need to eat for practical reasons such as when there won’t be time for lunch later. In this case, you might have to have a few bites even if you aren’t hungry.
  • Emotional Hunger, the times we eat to quench uncomfortable feelings. These situations are best responded to with a hug, or other comforting measure.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Tribole, E. and E. Resch, 2003. Intuitive Eating: a Revolutionary Program That Works., Vol. 2nd Edition. New York: St. Martin's Press.


"You Have to Eat. Or Else..."

"You must eat at least a few bites of breakfast. Otherwise, we're not going shopping."

This was so not my finest parenting moment. Ever find yourself similarly threatening your child?

Here are the facts: 

  • My daughter woke up cranky.
  • I knew that part of the reason she was cranky was because she was hungry.
  • Before I pulled out the big guns (No Shopping!), I had tried a reasonable, "Let's go get some breakfast." 
  • I also had tried, "You know, sometimes when you feel cranky it's because you're hungry."
  • Nothing had worked and now I was looking at a morning (maybe even an entire day) of dealing with my darling daughter.
  • I couldn't realistically cancel the shopping trip because we were traveling, and if I did, we'd be stuck staring at each other in our hotel room. (OK, I could have canceled the trip, but what would I have done: replaced it with a trip to a museum?)

You're with me, right? I had to do what I did!

Pressure doesn't work.

So there we were at the cafe where we had eaten breakfast every day during our trip. I'd bought my daughter a glass of milk—That's a good compromise, right?— and myself a bowl of oatmeal. I was eating. She was crying. Through her tears she said:

I thought you aren't supposed to make kids eat when they aren't hungry. 

I was busted.  (Be glad you didn't just write a book on this topic.)

The natural physiologiclal response to being upset is to lose your appetite.

Here are the facts:

  • My daughter wasn't in touch with her feelings of hunger because she was cranky and upset.
  • The more conflict I created, the more likely it was that my daughter wouldn't feel hungry.
  • If I had successfully pressured my daughter into eating I would have taught her to override her internal feelings and to eat for emotional regulation.

For more on this read Using Sweets to Soothe the Soul

My daughter, rightfully, "won."

  • I finished my meal.
  • We threw out the milk. 
  • And off we went. Both of us sulking.

Eventually our moods improved. We shopped and then we ate lunch.

What should I have done instead?

  1. Corrected my daughter's behavior. Feeling cranky doesn't give anyone a free pass to act anyway they want. (And someday it won't be me dealing with her cranky attitude; it might be her boss.)
  2. Suggested to my daughter that she might like to eat. Then, I should have left it alone. 

In moments like this it is extremely difficult to think long term. 

But you have to. Teaching kids to stay in stay in touch with their internal hunger and satiation cues and with their own emotions is a big part of teaching them the habits they need for a lifetime of healthy eating.

It's something to think about. Maybe even something to read about!

I discuss all these ideas in It's Not About the Broccoli.


 ~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~