We have an almost-pathological fear of kids being hungry in this country.
I’m not talking about real hunger. I’m talking about the kind of hunger that people naturally develop in between meals. You know, the old grumbling-in-the-tummy kind of hunger.
So here’s the question: “Should I feed my toddler on demand or on a schedule?”
The answer is a hybrid. Feed your child on a flexible schedule that imposes some structure but which is responsive to your child’s hunger.
For many parents, helping their children avoid hunger seems like a rational strategy.
- Hungry children are prone to meltdowns (and, for some reason, this usually happens when in public)
- Hungry children don’t do well in school
- Hungry children are sometimes harder to feed
But avoiding hunger is the wrong habit to teach children.
Sometimes a little hunger goes a long way. Read The Upside of Hunger to find out why. Here’s one reason:
Toddlers need to learn to connect the feeling (pangs in their tummies) with the problem (hunger) and the solution (eating). If they never feel hungry, they’ll never learn this connection.
Help your children build an appetite: Implement the Eating Zones Rule
Eating Zones are regular blocks of time that you create—one for each daily meal and snack. On any given day you can choose one time during each Eating Zone when you will offer something to eat.
Eating Zones help you avoid constant on-demand grazing, but they do not snap you into a rigid schedule.
- Look at your typical day to see when you normally provide meals and snacks.
- Account for variables, such as naps, outings, school, or your work schedule.
- Evaluate when your child is usually hungry, when she is too tired, too hungry, or too distracted to eat.
- Use this information to create blocks of time each day when you can serve a meal or a snack.
The importance of Eating Zones is that they designate some times as eating times and other times as NO-EATING times.
You create opportunities for eating, but let your children choose whether and how much to eat.
And if your child wants to eat during a no-eating zone, respond compassionately, but help her wait. And remember…
- You can always move the next Eating Zone up so the wait isn’t too long
- The wait is where the learning happens
The structure of Eating Zones:
- Creates a predictable parenting dynamic. Read You Can’t Make Me Eat It! to find out why predictability is important.
- Constructively shares control with your child. Read The Hunger Dilemma.
- Prevents unnecessary snacking. Read What to Do About Snacks
In the perfect world, children would be taught to eat when (and only when) they were hungry. That’s not the world we live in.
But in the world we live in, children are usually required to eat at meal times—regardless of how much or how often they’ve eaten throughout the day. That is a lesson in overeating.
~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~