Hungry or Hangry Child? What You Can Do to Help

hangry child

Is Your Child Hungry or a Hangry Child?

‘Hangry’ is a state of being hungry and angry.

It’s a popular catchphrase used to describe that feeling when you’ve gone too long without eating and you could eat anything and everything RIGHT NOW… mixed with a little bit of added moodiness.

I get hangry. My husband can take a look at me and ask, “When did you eat last?” or say, “Looks like you need to get something to eat.”

One of my kids gets hangry too. She needs to eat frequently throughout the day (always has) or she is just not right.

But what about the child who says he’s hungry… all…the…time?

A child who complains of being hungry—right after they just ate—can be especially frustrating for parents. You know the scenario. You feed your kids a meal, and within the hour, they are complaining that they are hungry, and asking for more food.

What’s going on?

Background on Hunger

We are born with a natural sense of hunger, an ability to recognize it, and a desire to quench it pretty effectively. Think about babies: when they are hungry they cry, letting us know it’s time to eat. Not all cries indicate hunger; babies cry for a variety of reasons, including discomfort, a wet diaper, and more.

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.

In my experience, children are not inclined to use the delay tactics and strategic distractions common to those used by adults when they are hungry. For kids, hunger is powerful.

Hunger starts in the blood stream with the drop in blood sugar after a period of time has passed without eating (generally three to four hours for kids; less for toddlers). This blood sugar drop alerts the brain to tell the stomach to secrete the hunger hormone, ghrelin.

Ghrelin (I think of it as “GRRRR, I’m hungry”) causes feelings of hunger.

How Growth Affects Hunger

The dynamic process of growing triggers hunger and prompts children to eat.  Just think about the teenager: he eats a lot because he is in a growth spurt. A common “tell” of a parent with a teen is the frequent grocery store shops–like every two days– just to keep the kitchen stocked. 

{Read: 13 Signs Your Child is in a Growth Spurt}

If you don’t have a handle on hunger and a strategy to manage it, children may become self-sufficient at making choices for themselves, for better or worse. 

What Makes a Child Hungry?

When children go for long stretches without food, obviously that can wrestle up some fierce hunger. Also, if meals don’t provide enough calories, or lack nutrients such as protein or fat, children may become hungry because their appetite isn’t satisfied.

In teens, having a dose of protein at breakfast (about 30 grams) seems to help keep them full for a longer time than a breakfast without protein or low amounts of protein.

When kids aren’t satisfied after meals and snacks, hunger may build up, leading to overeating and/or unhealthy food choices.

How to Deal with Hunger

The best way to deal with hunger is to prevent it.

And your best bet for preventing hunger is to have a strategy with meals and snacks, including the timing of eating and the foods you choose to serve.

Of course, hunger may still occur at unexpected times, especially if your child is in the midst of a growth spurt. However, a strategy can help you make sure that panhandling in the kitchen every hour is the exception, not the rule.

Checklist: Manage eating and Prevent Hunger

  • Plan meals and snacks to occur at about the same time every day. For toddlers and preschoolers, target every 2-3 hours. For kids, aim for meals and snacks to happen every 3-4 hours. And for teens, meals can happen every 3-5 hours. Avoid skipped meals or snacks, as this can lead to overeating later on.


  • Use filling, nutritious foods at meals and at snacksSensible amounts of low fat dairy products, dairy alternatives that contain 5 grams or more of protein per cup, lean meats, eggs, nuts, and beans are all protein-containing foods, which when eaten, may give kids a sense of fullness. Fiber is also a food component that keeps you full longer and it can be found in 100% whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans and more. Last, adding a healthy fat source to meals, such as avocado, olive oil or foods with inherent fat, like whole milk, can also up the filling factor.



  • Is your child really hungry? Ask him. This not only starts the conversation about eating and feeling satisfied, it helps your child start to be more aware of his appetite and what works best to satisfy it. If he says he really is hungry (and it’s not meal or snack time), then offer some fruit or other healthy food (yogurt, veggies). Don’t cave into requests for cookies or cheesy crackers.

How do you manage your hungry or hangry child?


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