Why do people eat? I asked my 5-year-old a few days ago. “Because they’re hungry”, he tells me. Duh. Not “when they’re bored” or “when they feel sad” or “when they’re punished or rewarded” or for any other reason that many of us eat. I wonder….would all kids respond with such conviction? More importantly, do most kids only eat when they’re on empty? And most important of all, do parents model and teach that we eat because we’re hungry?
It’s possible that kids are being programmed to eat when they’re not hungry. The automatic sliding door on your minivan closes and instant hunger sets in. Walking into the house and the first place anyone goes is the fridge. Bringing snacks in your purse in case the youngsters get bored at the check-out in Costco. It doesn’t take long to get into a routine. Offering refreshments at random times, or specific times that are not eating times for that matter, quickly reinforces the idea that kids always need to be eating. By grazing throughout the day, their little tummies don’t have the chance to get empty, which is a good thing to get. At meal time there’s no way Max will be hungry if he just ate crackers and cheese an hour ago.
Babies naturally turn away from food, or in most cases catapult it, when they are full. What can you do to keep this up? (The turning away part- not the catapulting). One way is to let them get hungry. I’m not talking low blood sugar I’m-a-famished-monster-with-a-crazed-look-in-my- eyes. I’m talking mild hunger pains. A purring of the stomach, if you will. This experience gets children in tune with what hunger feels like, so later in life when offered food, they can actually make a decision to not eat if they don’t in fact feel hungry. Hunger truly is the best seasoning.
Snacks do have their place, especially if your kids are like mine and have appetites like horses. (I actually don’t know how much horses eat, but I imagine a lot). But snacks need to be scrupulously examined for wholesomeness, and timing should be properly planned. This means:
- there should be an exact snack time
- the snack should be relatively small
- the snack should be real and healthy food. Pretzels or goldfish are excellent examples of what I call not-real-foods. Where did they come from? Fruits, veggies, seeds and nuts are real foods.
The word snack is often used interchangeably with treat. It shouldn’t be. Treats are sometimes foods, like once or twice a week, in my opinion. Eating chips or cookies for snack time will not provide lasting energy but small servings of protein with carbohydrate (like walnuts and pomegranate seeds) do. Snacks also should be 2 hours or more before a meal.
Not just when, but where: eating while in the car, reading a book, watching TV or doing homework isn’t conducive to mindful eating. Kids, and anyone, tend to eat more when distracted. Which, according to Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, is a great way to get kids to eat more vegetables. Just plonk a plate of cut-up vegetables in front of anyone watching TV and away you go. Although Wansink didn’t use the word plonk. I don’t encourage any type of mindless eating, even if the eating is of healthy foods, so try to stick with the table rule (if you’ve never heard of the table rule: Eat At The Table).
Stay strong: Many parents (myself not included. I use an excellent brand of earplugs. It’s true, ask my husband) have a very hard time listening to whining, and will do just about anything to make it stop. In addition to stress from high pitched noise, parents often panic that their kids are hungry. But you must keep your wits. Intense moments are just that. Moments. And they will pass. Practise in the mirror, saying out loud “you’re hungry? Dinner is in 1 hour ” or “you’re hungry? Sometimes I’m hungry too when I didn’t eat most of my lunch” or you can be more forward and simply but non-judgmentally state “maybe next time you’ll eat dinner with the rest of the family so that you won’t be starving an hour later”. When we give kids snacks shortly after a meal, they remember. And they may forgo the chicken stir-fry, knowing that eyelash flapping, mid-section holding and pouting will get them Oreo cookies and milk before bed. But if snacks are smaller and less often, kids will quickly learn to eat at appropriate meal times. This might take a while, so there could be a few days of extra tears, whining and general irritability. Your child might experience these symptoms as well. But it will pass and eventually youngsters learn to eat more at meal times and that your purse is not a receptacle for raisins, pretzels and Ritz crackers.