A mother in our online support group recently asked an excellent question that I think many parents have wondered:
Why shouldn’t toddlers “graze” throughout the day–doesn’t eating intuitively mean they eat when they are hungry?
If you’re not familiar with Intuitive Eating, essentially it is the philosophy that our bodies are trustworthy when it comes to food and we will do better overall when we listen to our bodies’ appetite, hunger, fullness, and satisfaction cues rather than follow a strict diet or regime. I’m a definitely a fan of Intuitive Eating, although I lean a little bit more toward the structure of Satter’s Eating Competence.
Yet I also believe that children and adults do best when they plan to eat regular meals rather than graze. So how does that work? And why not let a child eat whenever he sees fit? There are a number of very good reasons for having a routine of regular meal and snack times–and most of these 6 reasons apply to kids past the toddler age too.
1. Recognizing and responding to hunger and fullness requires actually experiencing them
Hunger and fullness, appetite and satisfaction are important body cues. They also have a natural ebb and flow. Hunger and appetite are signs from the body that drive us to eat. Fullness & satisfaction help us know when we’re done. Grazing tends blunt all those signals. You’ll rarely feel hunger if you’re constantly nibbling. And you’ll rarely feel full or satisfied if you don’t eat a filling amount. Grazing, essentially keeps you in neutral and for many can interfere with the way their bodies best regulate food intake.
Intuitive eating also means neither ignoring hunger or being afraid of it. If a child is used to eating at the first tiny little inkling of hunger, feeling a stronger hunger might seem unbearable (especially if, due to no routine, he doesn’t have confidence that he’ll be fed soon). On the other hand, some kids might not eat until they are beyond hungry and then have a hard time settling down.
Now, in general, I’m not such a die hard to think everyone has to eat in the exact same way no matter what. Some kids and grown-ups do just fine being nibblers. But being part of a family comes with some need for routine (see below). Not to mention the attention span and impulsive nature of most toddlers…
OH I SEE CRACKERS! (climbs up to the counter, opens the box, grabs a couple crackers…)
OH MY DOG LOOKS SILLY! (pets family dog who tries to snatch a cracker…child runs off…)
OH CRAYONS! (starts coloring leaving a trail of crumbs)
Without some structure, eating takes on an amorphous, boundary-less life that doesn’t really accomplish good nutrition, mindfulness, or satisfaction. At least one of those would be nice 😉
2. Family meals depend on maintaining a routine
There’s no way around the fact that family meals are important for children’s overall health and well being. Eating together influences a child’s food preferences (even when it seems otherwise) and contributes to overall good nutrition. But the social aspect is critical too. There’s a ton to learn from a shared meal beyond food. Plenty of research bears this out. Grazing interferes with family meals. Toddlers aren’t going to be very good planners in terms of making sure they aren’t snacking 10 minutes before dinner. Eating little bits when the moment strikes them will keep them from having an appetite for family meals. And trying to have a pleasant time around the table when a toddler’s hunger level is at a zero–not fun!
3. Teaches basic self-care with food
We teach our kids to care for themselves at first by taking care of them. Later we add on modeling. Gradually the ratio of modeling to doing things for them increases as they get older. Eventually they’re on their own. But toddlers aren’t there yet even though it’s easy to think that they don’t need us as much. After all, they can be quite independent and are physically able to do a lot more than their infant selves could. But they still need us to lead the way and provide food nurturing and structure. Left to their own devices, they will only seek out foods they already like. They won’t challenge themselves or expose themselves to unfamiliar foods or foods they don’t yet love. That’s up to us.
But beyond that, serving meals and sit down snacks also trains kids to have a certain level of respect for that kind of self-care. It makes it normal to carve out time and space for the act of eating. When we treat it as an important ritual, not something to treat lightly, I think it sends a strong message that feeding ourselves is worth going to some trouble to do.
4. Food is meant to solve food problems
“Emotional eating” is one of the most common struggles my adult patients complain about. Did you know that even a toddler can learn to eat to cope with emotions? When food is available at all times, there’s little to stop a child from eating from boredom, to get attention, to soothe sadness, or even just because the thought popped into their minds. And then we’re back on the blunted-appetite-can’t-eat-at-mealtime cycle. Kids need to learn that food is awesome–at solving food problems like hunger. It’s not that you have to make eating into a very cold, dry, emotionless task. Just don’t let it get misused.
5. Teeth need a break too
This is pretty straightforward. Although a lot of emphasis is placed on minimizing candy and sugary foods for cavity prevention, in reality eating nonstop is just as big of a problem for dental health.
6. Mom’s sanity counts
Feeding toddlers is hard enough with their chaotic appetites and choosy, constantly changing, food tastes. It is a BLESSING to know you don’t have to keep your car and purse chock full of kid snacks for every outing and errand. Yes, sometimes you might need to bring a snack if the timing is right, but please FEEL THE FREEDOM of not having to haul food all over. And of course, not feeding-on-demand or allowing grazing means food is not sprinkled all over the house because your 3 year old has learned to sit at the table.
Are these enough reasons to maintain a regular structure of sit-down meals and snacks instead of feeding toddlers on demand? I hope so. Because life is much better on this side. And feeding on a flexible schedule does not negate the opportunity for your kids to express their little intuitive eating selves–it helps them do it better.
What is the alternative?
Instead of letting kids graze, plan regular meal and snack times. Kids under 3 need to eat as often as every 2 hours. Older kids usually do fine with 3-4 hours between eating times. Don’t wait for your little ones to beg, beat them to it by putting the meal or snack food on the table and helping them transition to the table. Older kids can learn to mind the clock and choose their own snacks–but that’s a topic for a different post.
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