How many meals your child should have a day

by Jennifer Bowden / 24 March, 2018
RelatedArticlesModule - How many meals should your child have a day

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The orthodox approach to fuelling the young is to let them decide how much to eat.

QUESTIONOur grandchildren are given snacks at any time of day – after school, in the car, at the movies. If they say they’re hungry 15 minutes before a meal, they’re given a snack – no one seems to bother if they can’t or won’t eat their proper meal. Isn’t it good to have an empty stomach from time to time?

ANSWER: Children are born with an innate sense of knowing what, when and how much to eat for their own growth and development. So, although outwardly the eating habits of young children may seem haphazard – with piles of food eaten one day and almost nothing the next – their energy and nutrient intake invariably averages out over several days to meet their needs, researchers have discovered.

Given the natural reaction they have to their appetite, where do we draw the line with requests to eat?

The division of responsibility (DOR) model is considered the gold standard for feeding children. Developed by US-registered dietitian and feeding expert Ellyn Satter, the DOR approach encourages parents to take charge of the what, when and where of feeding, while letting the child decide whether to eat what you provide and the quantity. By this means, children are gently taught how to eat well.

From birth, it’s recommended that babies are fed on demand, allowing them to find their own timing for feeds. However, as infants develop and become more regular in their eating patterns, the caregiver gradually takes the lead on when and where feeding occurs.

Most children are ready for a meals-plus-snacks routine with their family by the end of their first year or beginning of their second, according to the Ellyn Satter Institute. From then, feeding responsibility is divided between the caregiver and child through the young person’s early years and adolescence. Maintaining a structure of family meals and sit-down snacks is up to adults.

Feeding expert Ellyn Satter.

Ideally, a routine of meals and light snacks every two to four hours is established, with snacks eaten at least 90 minutes to two hours before main meals, especially by children, so they don’t lose their appetites. Set snack times, rather than all-day grazing, do allow the body to experience and respond to important fullness and hunger cues. What’s more, grazing almost always interferes with family meals.

But all children are different when it comes to eating habits. From age one to two, my older son has eaten substantial main meals and tended to snack infrequently, whereas his younger brother has consistently preferred smaller meals and eaten every snack on offer.

Either way, parents should ideally create a routine of set snack and mealtimes and ensure these are sit-down occasions with food served on a plate. Distractions such as television and phones should be absent. Bear in mind, however, that there also needs to be flexibility to accommodate changes in appetite resulting from growth spurts or increased energy needs.

Every parent will know the phenomenon of a child’s seemingly endless hunger during a growth spurt. Rather than questioning the child’s request for more food at meal times, the caregiver’s role, according to the DOR model, is simply to provide appropriate foods at the appropriate time and trust the child to eat enough to meet their energy needs.

Just as with main meals, the goal with snacks for adults and children is to focus on nutrient-dense whole foods rather than processed snack foods. An interesting variety is always a good idea, whether that is fruit, vegetables, nuts, wholegrain breads or crackers, yogurt or milk.

DOR guidelines for parents 

  • Choose and prepare the food.
  • Provide regular meals and snacks.
  • Make eating times pleasant.
  • With step-by-step examples, teach children how to behave at mealtimes.
  • Be considerate of your child’s lack of food experience without pandering to likes and dislikes.
  • Do not let your child have food or beverages (except water) between meals and snacks.
  • Let your child develop the body that is right for them.

Trust your child to:

  • Eat the amount they need.
  • Learn to eat the food you eat.
  • Grow predictably in a way that is right for them.
  • Learn to behave well at mealtime.

Source: Ellyn Satter Institute.

This article was first published in the August 19, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener.

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