Are you frustrated with your child not eating anything at meal times? Is it becoming a regular battle at the dinner table to get your child to just try and eat something, ANYTHING off his/her plate? Or maybe they do eat a couple bites here and there, but hardly enough to consider it a meals worth.
I totally get it. I get how frustrating it can be to work hard to prepare a dinner for your family, only to receive pushback and uninterested stares at what you’ve set in front of them. Now before you automatically claim that you have a picky eater (which you may, but hear me out), did you know that the number 1 reason most kids just aren’t eating their food at mealtimes is because they’re actually just not hungry?
And did you know that the number 1 reason why they are not hungry is because they are likely just snacking too much throughout the day?
The snacking or “grazing” phenomenon we have created especially within this past two generations is quickly becoming out of control. In a 2010 study conducted by Barry Popkin, Ph.D., it was shown that kids are snacking an average of 3 times a day in comparison to an average of once a day just a few decades ago, and the biggest increase is shown in kids aged between 2 and 6 years old (1). Why is this such a big problem?
For one, more snacking = more overall calories consumed (up to 586 extra calories per day in fact! (1)). So it’s no wonder that kids aren’t hungry at mealtimes!
Secondly, when children are constantly grazing on snacks all day, they fail to develop the proper hunger cues that tell their bodies when they need to eat and when they are full and satisfied. When kids are being constantly fed little bits over the course of a day, their stomachs are never entirely empty, and so they really have little experience knowing what it’s like to be truly hungry! A healthy child should be able to recognize the symptoms telling him/her they need to eat, and have developed proper self-regulation to know when to stop eating. If they approach the dinner table without any of these cues, they don’t feel the least bit compelled to eat what’s in front of them. This may lead them to play with their food instead of taste it, scowl and turn away, mutter words like “it’s gross”, etc. Parents may then look at this at think that they have a picky eater on their hands when really it’s just that they really don’t feel the urge to eat.
Finally, when kids know that they will receive a snack on demand, they will choose to forgo a meal (even if they are hungry) and hold out for the snack that they know is coming very soon after. I Many times kids use the excuse that they’re full and don’t want to eat anymore, only to ask for a snack just minutes later! This is because they know that there will always be a snack on demand and would rather just wait until then so that they get another (likely yummier) food option. Smart kids!
So what can parents do?
The absolute best thing that parents can do is let their kids go hungry for a bit (within reason)!
Kids need to have structure around their meal and snack times. This means having scheduled and consistent snack times each day in between meals. Because babies’ and toddlers’ stomachs are so small, they typically need to eat every 2-3 hours to keep themselves full. Therefore it makes sense to have a snack in between each meal and before bedtime (about 6 small meals per day). School aged children have the capacity to eat and fill their bellies more at meal times, so they really only need to eat every 3-4 hours (e.g. breakfast at 7:30 am, lunch at 11:30 pm, snack at 3:30, dinner at 6:30 pm). Unless bedtime is more than 2 or 3 hours past dinner time, there really is no need for a bedtime snack to be offered. So outside of the scheduled meal or snack times, it’s crucial to let your kids know that snacks won’t be given out!
This means… if your child refuses a meal (or snack) or just doesn’t eat enough, they will have to wait until the next feeding time to eat again. This is not meant to make your child starve (which they won’t…trust me). The point of this is to allow your child to know what it means to be hungry, to understand the hunger and full cues, and to ultimately get them to eat enough at mealtimes because they know they will have to wait for the next set meal (or snacktime) before eating again.
Now put it into practice!
While it may seem easier to avoid any potential temper tantrums and just give in with a snack when they ask for it, it really isn’t worth it. It only takes a day or two to establish a new routine with your child, and as long as you are firm and consistent, they will quickly understand and adjust to the new schedule.
The best tip I’ve seen for achieving this comes from Dietitian Sarah Remmer who instructs parents to say these five simple words – “The kitchen is now closed”. When meal time or snack time is over, tell your child that the kitchen is closed and won’t be open again until ____ o’clock. Remind your child of this before they make their final decision to stop eating so that they can decide for themselves if they can last until the next scheduled time. This way, you are saving yourself the hassle of constantly preparing more snacks at all hours of the day, but more importantly – you are teaching your child to decide if and when they are full and to properly time out their meals. It will also eliminate the temptation for your child to forgo a meal simply because he/she would rather have a tastier snack option upon demand an hour later.
Another tip is to make sure that snacks are “snack size” and not “meal size”. Keep them substantial enough that your child will feel satisfied to carry them through to mealtime, but not as large as a meal itself would be. If they are nutrient dense foods you are serving, snacks should easily carry them through for a couple hours at the very least.
Keep in mind also that drinking too much milk throughout the day also can contribute to feeling too full. While it’s nutritious, toddlers over 12 months of age should have no more than around 2 cups of milk each day. I find it’s best to offer water in between meals and they give try giving 1/2 cup or so at mealtimes (or just after) to prevent them from filling up too much before they’ve been given the chance to eat.
With a little provision around the timing of snacks and meals, the chances that you will be battling less at the dinnertable all of a sudden becomes much higher. Not to mention, you will be helping your child develop mindful eating habits that will serve them well throughout their life.
1. Piernas C., Popkin B., 2010. Trends In Snacking Among U.S. Children. Health Aff. 29: 3398-404