You know the type of child I mean and perhaps you have one. They constantly pester you for food, seem to think about food at every spare moment. Perhaps you're worrying about their weight, or whether this means they will have a propensity towards being overweight when they're older.
The first thing to ascertain is whether they really are hungry or whether they have an overactive appetite and love for food. Kids certainly go through growth spurts where they can be non-stop eating machines as their bodies drive them to seek out food to support the rapid growth. If they truly are hungry then of course we should trust their appetite and feed them what they need. However that does not mean nutrient-poor, energy-dense modern processed foods. Think about what we would have eaten before modern times when all this choice of processed food was unavailable. These are the sorts of foods both we, and our hungry kids, should be consuming. Even if you have the skinniest ectomorph kid with a seemingly endless appetite, do not resort to feeding them foods full of sugar, refined starch and overt flavourings. Weight is not the only indicator of a poor diet and all you are doing is setting them up for a lifetime of bad eating.
Provide nutritious snacks such as nut butter (provided they aren't allergic of course) on wholegrain toast, hummus with pita bread, extra bowls of wholegrain cereal with milk and yoghurt, home-roasted nuts mixed with dried fruit and dark chocolate chips or homemade smoothies. You can also increase the energy density in a healthful way by adding good fats such as olive oil, using almond meal in homemade muffins or adding avocado to sandwiches and wraps. Make sure you're not giving a low-fat, high-fibre diet to young kids or they really will be struggling to get enough energy. It will seem to you they are constantly eating when in fact they just have too adult a diet.
But how do you know if your child is really hungry or is just being a touch greedy? We have to teach our kids to differentiate between hunger and feeling like food. The other day my youngest said he was hungry but refused everything I offered him so I asked him what he would like and ''ice-cream'' was the response - a clear example of appetite for food not being the same as true hunger. A good way to teach your kids the difference is to ask them if they are hungry in their tummy or feel like food in their head. In the ice-cream situation, I explained to him that feeling like having a yummy food is not the same as being hungry and if we always indulge in what we feel like that stops us from being properly hungry at mealtimes when we need to be eating so as to get the nutrients our bodies need to work well.
There are clear differences between kids. I have two boys aged five and seven. My eldest will indulge in lollies and ice-cream when offered to him, as most kids will, but he certainly has far less interest in eating than my younger son. My five-year-old is constantly asking for food and raiding the pantry without permission. If we as parents allow this to happen and indulge the constant snacking, then we have Buckley's chance of getting our kids to eat a nutritious dinner, especially when it's something new. We have to teach them that it's OK to be a little hungry and wait for mealtime to eat.
When my son is throwing a tantrum while I'm cooking because he wants something to eat, I try to teach him the art of distraction. I get him engaged in some task or activity and tell him this will keep his mind occupied so that before he knows it dinner will be ready.
I spend a lot of time undoing bad habits from childhood in the adults that I see, so establishing these good habits from the get-go is crucial for long-term healthy eating. We must teach our children that it's OK to be hungry and wait for food at mealtimes, and practise this ourselves. In the modern world the minute we feel even remotely hungry we can eat, and so many do. If your child grazes on food constantly, he or she will be in this boat and eventually won't be able to differentiate true hunger from appetite.
So the key is to have set meals and snacks without the constant grazing in between meals. Your child will soon learn that they need to eat up at mealtimes (they will if they're hungry) because the kitchen is closed at other times. It's not a bad rule for all of us to adopt.
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