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How to raise your child as an intuitive eater

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There’s a balance between schoolkids eating enough for their energy needs and learning to recognise hunger through intuitive eating.  

Where is the line between raising happy, healthy kids and controlling their behaviour to such an extent that we actually harm their development and well-being? When it comes to children and food – and efforts to combat the obesity epidemic – that line is easily crossed.

Children are born as intuitive eaters – they know when to eat and when to stop. A newborn infant, for example, will cry until someone feeds it, and toddlers will avoid even the most skilful manoeuvring of a spoon-masquerading-as-a-plane if they’re full and don’t want to eat.

When children are left to respond to their own hunger and fullness cues, we’re teaching them to trust their bodies, and, in the process, following expert guidelines such as those of the World Health Organisation.

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However, children have high energy needs. A five-year-old boy, for example, needs about double the energy per kilogram of body weight as a 50-year-old man. So, young children need to eat a lot to fuel their growth, play and learning time.

But kids have small stomachs and are unable to tuck away the large amount an adult might consume.

Nutritious, tasty snacks between main meals are an excellent way to help children get the energy and nutrients they need. And without them, hunger can set in and cause waning energy levels, even sleepiness, difficulty focusing and concentrating and irritability. That’s not the frame of mind teachers want their young students to be in.

Hunger hinders learning. Research has found that kids who arrive at school without breakfast have poorer academic performance in the short- and long-term.

What should be avoided is day-long grazing. Snacks are ideally timed to ensure there’s long enough before the next meal that the child is hungry again. Hunger is positive encouragement for a child to eat a meal that provides a good balance of nutrients and enjoyment.

Obviously, everyone is different, and it depends on the snack, but a gap of at least 90 minutes to two hours between snacks and meals is usually about right.

Each school has its own snack and lunch-break schedule. But for young children, especially those in their first year of school, it can be a long, hungry wait between breakfast and the first official school snack break at 10.30am-11am. So, the “brain food” snack break in the first hour of school time is a great way to bridge the gap between breakfast (probably eaten at 7am-8am) and the school’s morning snack break.

When we encourage children to ignore their body’s cues – by telling them they can’t possibly be hungry when they’ve just had a big meal or snack, or that they need to finish everything on their plate and not waste food, even if they’re full – we’re damaging the trust they have in their body’s cues.

The job of parents and caregivers is to offer children a range of nutritious and fun foods to enjoy at regular intervals, and allow them to get used to the sensations of hunger and fullness and decide for themselves which foods, and how much, they need to eat.

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.