A few summers ago, I remember my kids running around the neighborhood with friends. It was time for lunch and I stopped my kids to come in and eat. One of their friends told me that he doesn’t eat lunch, just snacks all day. I realized not every family has regular meals and snack patterns and asked him to come and have a meal.
Planning and structuring consistent meals and snacks — what I call “eating by the clock” — has many benefits. Plus, it goes a long way towards solving family food dilemmas.
First, what is “eating by the clock” mean?
When I say eating by the clock, I’m not talking about eating when the clock strikes X. What it does mean is there are regular and rhythmic eating occasions that occur around the same time. Of course, weekends are more flexible but there is a general time for breakfast, lunch, and dinner with in-between eating once or twice a day.
It also means that most days there is no grazing — going into the kitchen every hour to get something to eat, or bringing food with you while playing video games. In short: there are times for eating, and times for not eating.
So with that in mind, here are 7 ways your family will benefit from eating by the clock.
1. It ensures everyone gets more nutrition
Having regular meal and snack times better equips you to feed your family all the nutrients they need to grow and thrive. By thinking ahead and planning those meals, the food is more likely to be balanced. But eating on the fly often means less variety and nutrition.
For kids that are making their own lunch, be sure to give them a how-to guide so they can incorporate food groups. For example, choose from at least 3 good groups to make up lunch.
2. Kids may branch out more
In one study, young children who ate structured meals with their parents — free from distractions — were less likely to exhibit fussy eating behaviors. These kids were also allowed autonomy during meals about the choices they made.
Let’s consider why. Structured meals likely ups food exposure. Plus, eating with parents is a key step in food learning. It’s also likely that parents are making food decisions even though kids get to choose (sounds like DOR to me!).
3. It helps self-regulate eating
There’s this belief that we should wait to eat until there’s a pang of hunger. While hunger should always guide eating, we are humans that can get caught up in what we are doing and before we know it, we are starving. If there’s nothing planned we will grab anything. Also, kids can easily mix up hunger with habit, believing they are hungry when they are really bored or used to eating while doing an activity.
In one study, structure-related feeding practices were associated with higher levels of self-regulation of eating in children. In other words, children are more likely to get the amount of food they need when regular, rhythmic meals are the norm. What I have found, being a structured eater myself, is that my hunger becomes very predictable based on when I usually eat. Plus, structured eating usually means more satisfying meals which decrease the desire to graze.
4. It quiets down food requests
Mom, can I have cookies? Dad, can I have some crackers? Mom, can I have juice?
Having planned meals and snacks gives you the perfect response to food requests. You can say that their next meal or snack is coming real soon. And when they request a particular food, you can tell them you’ll keep that in mind for future meals.
5. It makes dinner more enjoyable
When my kids were little and constantly grazed before dinner they’d rather be anywhere then the dinner table. Sometimes I let this go, especially when it was a party or visit to the grandparents. My goal has always been to keep snack-time to a minimum at least 2 hours before dinner so they show up to the table with an appetite.
When young children come to dinner hungry, but not ravenous, they are more likely to eat at least some of what is offered. They also behave better when they aren’t starved or already full.
Same for older children and adults. Meals are more enjoyable when we are hungry and have a desire to eat. That treasured eating time is something to look forward to!
6. Our internal clock likes it
While eating by the clock doesn’t sound like the most spontaneous activity, our bodies thrive on routine. In fact, almost every cell in the body has a 24-hour clock. The body’s circadian rhythms (meaning to occur on a 24-hour cycle) have been found to play a key role in health. Chaotic eating patterns, like eating late at night, are one of several lifestyle factors (lack of sleep, too) that can disrupt circadian rhythms in the body. And disruptions are found to increase the risk of chronic disease
Although more research is needed, establishing regular times of eating (during the day) and fasting (at night) can help restore circadian rhythms positively affecting health.
More on this in a future post!
7. It may help uncover uncomfortable emotions
If we are used to eating whenever with no real pattern, it may be hard to change. Consider why this is. Could it be food is being used to avoid certain feelings like boredom, stress, or relationship troubles? Sometimes we may not even be aware this is happening in ourselves or our children until the food part changes.
But that’s what eating by the clock helps you figure out. It may be unpleasant at first but those feelings are trying to tell you something important.
Of course, we all have times eating can be erratic but there are many benefits to planning regular meals and eating them around the same time most days.
So tell me, does your family eat by the clock?
Want expert advice on when to feed at every age and stage? Check out Maryann’s book Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School