Since I started blogging about childhood nutrition several years ago, I’ve consistently received the same question from parents. It typically centers around a child who eats a lot and is always hungry. Here’s an example:
My daughter is 5 years old and every time she eats she always has more than one serving at meal times. After she’s eaten a meal she will come back 10 minutes later asking me for a snack and if her wish is not “granted” immediately she will scream and cry and throw a fit until she gets some sort of “snack” or food. What I can do to stop her from eating too much?
The first question I ask is whether or not meals are structured. The answer is typically yes, but when I get more information, I usually find this one key mistake being made.
#1 Mistake: a lack of limit-setting
While parents do go to the trouble of planning meals, most aren’t aware how much their child is eating outside of mealtimes. When I asked the mom from the aforementioned question (Charlotte) if she gives in to her daughter Kelly’s food requests after meals, I discover a mixed bag ― sometimes she does and other times she doesn’t.
Then I discover Kelly has been going into the pantry since she was two. Charlotte tells her daughter not to eat certain items, but that only makes her want it more. She also grabs snacks to eat while watching TV.
So now that we are digging deeper, I can see that the problem really isn’t about food but a lack of clear limits. Children test limits all the time and that is what Kelly has been doing. Yes, their family has regular meals, but the in-between-meal eating hasn’t been enforced.
The problem is that children allowed too much food freedom aren’t strengthening their self-control muscle. If they want a food, they can have it anytime. If they are just slightly hungry, they get food the instant they say the H-word. They can much more easily lose track of hunger and fullness, eating too much or too little.
We know what doesn’t work, but what does work?
One of the limitations of the research on feeding is it’s primarily focused on what doesn’t work. For example, we know that both unlimited access and too much restriction of food backfires as children fail to learn how to self-regulate. But there is less clear evidence on what actually does work. In one review, researchers suggest that “structured-based feeding” is likely to help because it teaches children limits. This is adapted from the parenting literature showing structure in the home is linked to better self-discipline in children.
Parenting expert, Dr. Laura Markham at Aha Parenting, explains it this way:
“So every time your child chooses to shift gears from what she wants to do, to follow your lead, she practices regulating her impulses. She’s building self-discipline muscle. (Or, actually, neural pathways. But like muscle, these neural pathways get stronger with use, so you can think of it as building a stronger brain that’s capable of harder work.). Permissive parenting doesn’t help kids develop self-discipline because it doesn’t ask them to exercise self control in pursuit of their larger goal.”
Although how we set limits is also important, such as using empathy, the key is to have the limits set in the first place. Here’s how to do it around food:
- If kids are used to a loose feeding schedule, explain clearly to them that things are going to change. Review Satter’s Division of Responsibility, telling them that it’s your job to pick what to eat, when to eat it, and where but they get to decide whether or not to eat it.
- What: Let children know that you decide what is for meals but you love their input. School-aged children can start making some meals and snacks but it’s important they do it with guidance from parents.
- When: Decide how many times to eat meals and snacks. Three meals and two snacks is typical but that depends on needs and different children have different needs. Do what pediatric nutrition expert Jill Castle recommends and have a “kitchen closed” rule between meals.
- Where: Set a place to eat like the kitchen table. Limit eating while watching TV or in the car to occasional occurrences.
Meal structure is your secret weapon
When challenges arise with kids around hunger and constantly asking to eat, it’s typical to look at food as the culprit. But it usually has more to do with how the child is being fed, and these two simple words: meal structure.
For more researched-based strategies on teaching kids self control around food, see my new book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food.