Appetite is a primal force, telling your child’s head and body it’s time to eat. If left unattended, it can create an unhealthy array of habits and eating patterns that can influence your child’s weight status.
Your Appetite Barometer
We are born with a natural sense of hunger, an ability to recognize it, and a desire to quench it pretty effectively. Babies expressly tell us when they need to eat—they cry. 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 appetite–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–healthy techniques and not-so-healthy ones.
How Children Experience Appetite and Hunger
In my observation, children are not inclined to use the delay tactics and strategic distractions common to adulthood management of appetite. Hunger, for many children, is powerful. Naturally, children feel hunger and they seek food.
Also, children are in the dynamic process of growing and hunger prompts them to eat. Ever hear of the teenager that won’t stop eating? How about your friend, the mother of that teen, who is off to the grocery store every two days, just to keep the kitchen stocked?
Children are able to satisfy their appetite, and become self-sufficient at making choices for themselves. Often, we adults fail to appreciate the power and influence of hunger in a child.
Appetite and a Healthy Weight
The degree of hunger and your responsiveness to it plays an important role in your child’s weight status.
Intense hunger, or over-hunger, can occur as a result of long stretches without food, meals that don’t provide enough energy, or an improper balance of nutrients. Just as a car without gas sputters down the road until it eventually stalls, likewise our bodies drag along, tired and unfocused when nutrition is at bay.
If hunger is ignored or put off, it can cause havoc in a child’s ability to regulate their eating patterns. Unsatisfied hunger can build, causing overeating and inappropriate food choices.
For the child who struggles with their weight, overzealous techniques to reduce weight, such as food restriction, dieting, skipping meals or snacks, or beginning a vigorous exercise plan can backfire, leaving a child hungry and unsatisfied and eventually causing them to overeat.
In cultivating a healthy weight, there is a delicate balancing act: quenching hunger with filling, nutritious foods.
5 Ways to Honor Your Child’s Appetite
1. Respect the role of hunger in the growing child
Growing children are hungry– eating is variable to accommodate the energy needs associated with growth and development. Restricting or controlling your child’s food intake may actually cause them to become over-hungry and overeat at other times.
2. Stay ahead of hunger
Strategically plan meals and snacks to occur every 3-4 hours. Skipping meals or snacks can be a trap for overeating later on.
3. Use filling, nutritious foods
Offer 100% whole grains, fruits, and vegetables –they provide fiber–a component of food that keeps you full longer. Use sensible amounts of low fat dairy products and lean meats, eggs, nuts, and beans pump up the protein and also give you a sense of fullness.
4. 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.
5. Power up the protein & fiber in meals and snacks
Include a variety of foods from at least 3-4 of the MyPyramid food groups at mealtime. Offer power snacks at snack time and include a source of protein and whole grains for a satisfying, “stick to your ribs,” hunger-defying snack.
Remember: A “starving” child will eat. It’s up to you to have a strategic, healthy plan in place. Respect the power of appetite in your child. Anticipate it, cover it, honor it and use healthy, nourishing, satisfying food options that your child can enjoy.
What do you notice about your child’s appetite?
Written by: Jill Castle, MS, RDN
Published on: January 28, 2010
Updated on: May 8, 2019