Lately, my (almost) 3-year-old has been whining for food and drink constantly. When she gets up in the morning or after a nap she asks for “milky.” When it’s mealtime she screams for “apple juice!” And she wants a waffle pretty much all day long.
It can seem harmless to give a child the food they ask for, especially when it’s nutritious. And for those dealing with picky eaters, the temptation to give in is even greater (they finally want to eat!). But giving children the food they want, when they want it, has real consequences every parent should know about.
Here are 5 reasons you might want to rethink those in-between-meal food handouts:
1. It crosses the division of responsibility
If you’ve been reading my blog for a while you’re familiar with Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility of feeding – parents decide the “when,” “what” and “where” of feeding and children decide the “whether” and “how much” of eating.
When your children take over what they eat, they are taking over your job. And when you restrict or overly encourage their eating, you are taking over their job. The bottom line is young children have no idea how to plan well-balanced meals but they are masters at regulating their food intake.
2. They can become grazers
When a child is constantly eating all day long, they are less likely to be hungry at mealtime. This can easily translate into poor behavior and less food intake at the kitchen table. For more on planned meals and snacks see How to Strengthen Your Child’s Self Control Muscle.
Studies show that children who eat regular meals have better diets than those who don’t. Think about it. Do you eat better when you are grabbing food here and there or when you are sitting down to regular meals?
3. Children learn to eat for reasons other than hunger
I’ve noticed that when my daughter is really bored she’ll come to me for food handouts. I simply remind her that her next meal is coming soon. And I always inform her that she can have that particular food another time.
This isn’t about forbidding certain foods (which is a bad idea), it’s about maintaining structure with eating. The goal is to keep feeding separately from emotions like boredom, frustration and sadness. This way, kids learn to deal with life’s ups and downs without using food. After all, studies show that overweight children eat in the absence of hunger more than normal-weight children.
4. Kids don’t always know what they want
My daughter will often ask for one thing to eat and even yell “no” to what I serve her. Then after she realizes this is it for the meal, I see her chowing it down saying that it’s “yummy.” As children get older they will be able to choose snacks on their own, but when they are young it’s more than they can handle
Instead, I give her a say in the matter by asking her to choose between two items (like between a waffle or cereal for breakfast). This way, she feels like she has more control over what she’s eating even though I’m still in charge.
5. Liquid calories can displace other nutritious foods
Kids will often ask for drinks, like milk, juice or sweetened beverages, instead of water. A recent study published in Infant, Child, & Adolescent Nutrition describes how milk-drinking toddlers became iron deficient by over-consuming milk. While milk and juice can play important roles in the diet, too much can displace other nutritious foods and can even cause nutrition deficiencies.
It’s a good rule of thumb to encourage water as the thirst-quencher between meals (water is an always-okay food handout). On the other hand, make juice and milk a regular part of meals and snacks. Offer juice once a day and milk 2-3 times depending on their age.
Do you have to be a food nazi?
None of this means you need to be ultra-strict about what your kids eat and when. There are times when I’ll give my daughter what she asks for especially when it’s close to snack or mealtime. When she asked for a food item more than usual, I make sure to give it to her for one of her mealtimes.
I simply discourage eating between meals and snacks which come so frequently anyhow (every 2-3 hours). My response to her requests is “you’ll get it at your snack later.” And there are always exceptions like parties and get-togethers where food is all around. I would never exclude her from trying the different items like all the other kids and adults.
I believe providing children with structure at home frees them up to do their job of listening to their hunger and fullness signals. And hopefully, they’ll keep doing it for the rest of their lives.
Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense by Ellyn Satter, MS, RD
Bond SA. Excessive cow’s milk consumption and iron deficiency in toddlers. Infant, Child and Adolescent Nutrition, Vol. 1, No. 3, 133-139 (2009)