This is Part 6 of a series of posted used to help write my book How to Raise a Mindful Eater
Since I started blogging I’ve consistently received the same question from parents. It typically centers around a child that eats a lot and is always hungry. Here’s an example from a recent email I received:
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 about is whether or not meals are structured. The answer is typically yes, but because I’m working on a book on moderation, I’ve been hopping on the phone with more readers. And this is what I’ve been finding.
A lack of limit setting
While parents do go to the trouble of planning meals and snacks to a lesser degree, most parents aren’t aware how much their child is eating outside of mealtimes. When I asked the mom with the question from above (Charlotte*) if she gives into 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 cupboards for food 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 Kelly has been allowed too much freedom between meals.
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 that it has focused mainly 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 a recent 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.
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 a 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.
While 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, explaining 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 them 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 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.
When challenges arise with kids around hunger and constant asking for food, it’s typical to look at food as the culprit. But usually it has more to do with how that child is being fed. As a friend once told me, children often act out when there is a lack of limits….it’s their way of showing us they can’t handle all that responsibility yet. (for a story on how this happened wit my son and technology, read this post)
What does meal structure look like in your home?
*Names were changed to protect privacy
How to Raise a Mindful Eater Post Series
1. Obstacles and Benefits to Raising Intuitive/Mindful Eaters
2. The Importance of Self-regulation and Stress Management
3. Myths About Food Addiction That Keep it Alive
4. The Real Reason Children Crave Carbs
5. The Power of Paying Attention at Meals
6. How to Build Your Child’s Self-Control Muscle
7. How to Keep the Weight-Obsessed Culture from Harming Your Child’s Relationship with Food [Next]
8. My New Book: How to Raise a Mindful Eater
Want this series plus more content, expert interviews, and stories? Check out How to Raise a Mindful Eater: 8 Powerful Principles for Transforming Your Child’s Relationship with Food