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Is Your Child’s Hunger Satisfied?

Is your child’s hunger satisfied?

That’s the million-dollar question for parents who are trying to make sure they are giving enough, and not too much, food to their children.

We’ve talked about appetite before, and it’s powerful pull on children to satisfy the urge to eat. But nailing down and satisfying a child’s hunger can be a struggle. Once you’ve identified hunger, how far do you go to meet it?

I turned to Brian Wansink, author of Mindless Eating, for his perspective on the science of fullness and satisfaction and how they relate to children.

Background on Fullness vs. Satisfaction

Fullness is stomach-oriented, a physical feeling, but also has a psychological component. “We eat with our eyes, not with our stomach,” states Wansink. He references his research using bottomless bowls to illustrate how adults keep eating regardless of how full their stomachs may be. You can find more about this in his book, Mindless Eating.

“We have found that if adults eat until they are satisfied, then overall, they eat 20% less than if they were eating until they were full.”

That can be a strikingly significant difference in calories eaten.

Targeting satisfaction, rather than fullness, is a reasonable benchmark for how much to eat. Chances are, if you like the food you eat and eat a variety of foods, you’ll get closer to satisfaction, according to Wansink. But identifying and stopping at satisfaction is not so easy. As it turns out, children may be the model to look to for recognizing satisfaction.

On Children’s Eating

Kids’ eating is highly variable from meal to meal (especially the younger they are). Depending on their age and growth phase, their appetite may be lagging (toddlers) or it may be voracious (teens). And if you haven’t noticed, kids tend to eat in amounts that reflect their appetite.

Did you ever notice that many kids get up and leave the table when they are satisfied? This could be after eating a decent amount of food or after eating little. Parents aren’t always comfortable with this departure from the table. They worry their kids didn’t get enough to eat, or they didn’t eat in a balanced way.

Children tend to meet their nutritional needs over the course of a week when offered a varied and balanced diet, and allowed to eat to their satisfaction. So stop worrying about that one dinner meal! Give it a week before you start to worry (your child’s eating will likely be enough over this period of time).

On Feeding Children

“As parents, we often want our kids to eat until they’re stuffed, then we know they will live,” Wansink states. “If children leave the table, they are satisfied, and therefore not hungry anymore.”

This desire to make sure kids eat enough can lead to pressuring or cajoling kids to eat more. If you encourage your child to stay and eat a little more or until they are full, you may be teaching them to overeat. These practices, as we have discussed before, can set kids on a path to being disconnected with hunger and satisfaction signals, potentially leading to mindless eating.

Feeding kids with structure—regular times for meals and snacks (about every 3-4 hours, depending on age)—helps support kids in their eating and can help them regulate food intake so they get the nutrition they need.

On Food Choices

We all know it’s easy for kids to eat the foods they like, but what if those foods aren’t the healthiest for them?

“Parents are the nutritional gatekeepers, and they control about 73% of what kids eat, for the better or the worse,” says Wansink. “There’s a lot parents can do (to influence food choice).”

Stocking the kitchen with healthy foods and setting limits on sweets, sodas and other convenience foods go a long way to influence what children eat. However, some parents are trending toward being too insistent on foods their kids can and can’t eat, and this is backfiring, making kids more preoccupied with the very foods their parents want them to limit.

Reframing “Are You Full?”

“Are you full?” may not be the phrase of choice when raising tuned-in eaters. It encourages eating to fullness. Rather, “Are you satisfied?” may be the modern-day mom’s question to ask—helping you understand where your child is with appetite and encouraging children to think about eating toward a different goal– satisfaction, not fullness.

What do you think? Should we reframe our reference point for eating enough, focusing on satisfaction rather than on fullness?

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  1. As an RD consultant, I see alot of doctor referrals for overweight and obese children (ages 5 and up).
    Many parents state that their child likes to “sneak or steal” foods when no one is looking. Parents go on to state that the child is well fed at meals and snacks and their should be no physiological reason that the child “needs” to eat more.

    How do you handle this food related behavioral issue?

    1. That’s a good question. There’s quite a bit of research on Eating in the Absence of Hunger (EAH) and that’s exactly what you’re referring to. EAH can happen as a result of restricting a child’s food intake, loose structure to feeding and other reasons. Sometimes there’s a disconnect between what a parent thinks is enough to eat and what satisfies a child. Also, variety of foods offered and child satisfaction level after eating influence this as well. I think structure is one of the best preventative and corrective things parents can do–be rhythmic and routine with feeding, and offer snacks that are filling and nutritious. Implementing a “kitchen is closed” (look up Kitchen is CLosed on this blog) policy works as well. And, lastly addressing sneaking and hiding food with the child directly can be helpful–and not in a blaming, punishing way, but in an understanding (I know that you must be hungry) and supportive way (let’s find a solution so that you don’t have to feel like hiding).