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Understanding Your Child’s Hunger

Jill Castle

Health, Wellness, & Safety

Hunger is a primal force. If left unattended, it can create an unhealthy array of habits and eating patterns that can contribute to a damaged relationship with food and weight disruption.

We are all born with a natural sense of hunger, an ability to recognize it, and a desire to quench it. Babies expressly tell us when they need to eat by crying. Toddlers tell us by whining, or “melting down.” Children coming home from school may tear into the refrigerator or pantry, “starving” and desperate to eat.

By adulthood, folks generally have figured out how to manage their hunger, with some respectfully honoring their body’s signals and feeding it when the telltale signs emerge.  Others have strategies that help them manage their hunger and ultimately their weight. These can be healthy techniques and not-so-healthy ones. In my observations, children are not inclined to use the delay tactics and strategic distractions common to adulthood management of hunger. Hunger, for many children, is powerful and leads them to seek out food.

What’s going on?

Children are in the dynamic process of growing and hunger is the body’s natural prompt for eating. A great example of the hunger-growth relationship is the teenager who won’t stop eating, and his mother who is off to the grocery store every two days just to keep the kitchen stocked.  As children get older, they are able to satisfy their hunger and become self-sufficient at making choices for themselves. Often, we fail to appreciate the power and influence of hunger in children.

The degree of hunger and the responsiveness from the parent to that hunger plays an important role in childhood weight. Intense hunger can occur as a result of long stretches without food, meals that don’t provide enough calories, or an improper balance of nutrients.  Just as a car without gas sputters down the road until it eventually stalls, likewise our bodies get tired and unfocused when nutrition is low. If hunger is ignored or put off, it can cause havoc in a child’s ability to regulate their eating patterns. Hunger can build, causing overeating and inappropriate food choices.

The easiest and most important way to address hunger in the growing child is to quench it with filling, nutritious foods.  Here are some other things to keep in mind:

Understanding the growing child.  Growing children are hungry and eating can be variable depending on the growth stage. For example, babies and teens are growing rapidly and their hunger and eating generally reflect this. Toddlers, preschoolers and children are in a steady state of growth, so their food intake reflects this. Restricting or controlling your child’s food intake during what appears to be vigorous eating or a growth spurt may actually cause them to overeat due to getting too hungry.

Stay ahead of hunger. Plan meals and snacks to occur every 3-4 hours, so your child is offered an opportunity to eat. Skipping meals or snacks can lead to overeating later on.

Use filling, nutritious foods.  Whole grains, fruit and vegetables provide fiber, a component of food that keeps you full longer. Sensible amounts of low fat dairy products and lean meats, eggs, nuts, and beans pump up the protein and also fills up growing bodies.

Load up early.  A nutritious breakfast starts the body’s “engine” and sets the pattern for eating at regular intervals. Kids who skip breakfast may find themselves hungrier after school and at dinner time.

Ditch the convenience notion.  Include a variety of foods from at least 3-4 of the MyPlate food groups at mealtime.  Offer “power snacks” at snack time, making sure to include a source of protein and whole grains, fruit or vegetables for a satisfying, hunger-defying snack.

A “starving” child will eat. It’s up to you to have a healthy plan in place because the power of hunger lives in your child.  Anticipate it and react when it occurs with healthy, nourishing, satisfying food options that your child can enjoy!

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Jill Castle

Jill Castle is a registered dietitian/nutritionist with expertise in pediatric nutrition. She is the co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School, and creator of Just the Right Byte, a childhood nutrition blog. Follow Jill on Twitter @pediRD and Facebook.