“I’m soooo hungry,” whines the child at your side. Most adults will reach for a snack (preferably a healthy one) to satiate the child, but is that child really hungry? Oftentimes children say they are hungry because they are thirsty, bored, tired, frustrated, angry, anxious or a myriad of other emotions. It could also be that they are actually craving your attention and asking for food is a way that has worked in the past. Creating a relationship with food is important and being mindful of body signals may help determine if your child is hungry or something else may be the issue.
The first issue to tackle is to determine whether your child is thirsty. Often, our bodies are really just thirsty, but we think we are hungry. Taking a second to be mindful may help. Offering water is the first step. Water can be made more “fun” by adding fun shaped ice cubes, berries frozen in ice cubes, ½ and ½ mixture of flavored seltzer and water over ice, or ½ mixture of flavored or plain seltzer and juice. Be careful of added sugar and calories from juice. Depending on a child’s age, only 4 – 8 ounces of 100% juice is recommended per day, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (Heyman and Abrams, 2017).
If you have tried hydration techniques and your child still seems hungry, the next step is to check in with your child’s physical and emotional state. Research suggests that mindless eating is strongly related to emotional eating. Is your child tired, bored, angry, frustrated, sad, depressed, anxious or nervous? Time to play detective by determining your child’s physical and emotional state.
- Is your child tired?
- Is screen time or something else keeping them up at night? Keep to regular bedtimes and if they have a cell phone make it a policy to turn it in to you every night.
- Reconsider your child’s activities and see if you can lessen their load.
- Is your child bored? Here are some ideas to get your child to think of something else to determine if they are truly hungry or just looking for something to do:
- Play your child’s favorite game (preferably nothing on a screen)
- Build a fort (inside or outside your home)
- Make some homemade greeting cards to be used later in the year
- Sing or dance or both
- Create a poem together
- Take a nature walk
- Work on a puzzle or crossword together
- Is your child having a strong emotional feeling (anger, frustration, sadness, depression, anxiety, nervousness)? Approach the conversation by starting out with a phrase such as, “You seem sad/angry/nervous. Am I right? What do you think might be going on to make you feel that way?” Give your child time to reply.
- If your child has a hard time expressing their emotions, you can include some keywords to describe emotions or an illustration of facial expressions to help with communication.
- Next, try the following technique called the Emotion Envelope, or Feeling Folder:
- After discussing emotions, have your child write down what they are feeling and place it in an envelope. Example: I’m angry because I’m too young to ride the roller coasters. My cheeks feel hot and I have a stomach ache. (These can be in phrases or even simple drawings.)
- Positively reinforce that emotions are a guide for us and it is important to know how we feel inside.
- Place the paper inside an envelope and set it on the table.
- Sit down or lay on the floor with your child and take three deep breaths, letting your belly push in and out. Don’t raise your shoulders too much. Placing a book on the belly and watching it rise and fall will assist with deep belly breathing.
- Observe whether your child is beginning to relax. If not, take three more breaths and talk them through their breathing. For example, say, “I feel air going in my nose as I push out my belly. The couch feels soft against my back. I was sad that you were feeling upset, but now I’m feeling a little bit better. How about you?”
- Ask your child what they would like to do with the emotion envelope. Maybe they want to now add a happy face. Maybe they want to keep it or throw it away. Any choice they make is okay and as they begin to become mindful of their emotions, they will probably use the Emotion Envelope less and less.
- Don’t ask if they are still hungry; instead, watch what they do next. They might be ready to ride their bike or read a book. If they look to you for a bit of guidance, provide a creative outlet (drawing, painting, mosaics, sewing, tinkering, etc.).
What children see is what they crave. How do we help to make the healthy choice the easy choice for our children?
- Keep healthy snacks at eye level in clear bowls on the counter or in the fridge. Place your not-so-healthy snacks in generic airtight containers that are not in plain sight.
- Be cognizant of TV and media: try not to let your child eat while watching TV or doing homework. It’s hard to be mindful that way. Take a few minutes to sit down and enjoy your food together, even if you are just talking to your child while they eat a snack. Advertising not only occurs on TV, but on all social media platforms, and visual cues (advertising) can cause cravings even when people are not hungry.
Children develop patterns with food based on what they learn and what they see. Your modeling of good behavior and eating habits can influence your child into their adulthood. As an adult, your ability to stay involved as your child learns to practice mindful eating will increase their positive relationship with food and hunger. Mindful eating may take extra focus from you initially, but there are immense benefits of your child knowing when to eat, why to eat, what to eat, and ultimately, when to stop eating. The main reason we should eat is to satisfy hunger with the most nutritious foods available, and we should stop eating when we are no longer hungry.
Heyman, M.B., Abrams, S.A. (2017). Fruit Juice in Infants, Children, and Adolescents: Current Recommendations. American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Nutrition, Pediatrics, 139 (6) e20170967; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2017-0967
United States Department of Agriculture (2016). 10 Tips: Cut Back on Your Kid’s Sweet Treats. Accessed August 6, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ten-tips-cut-back-on-sweet-treats.
United States Department of Agriculture (2017). 10 Tips: Be a Healthy Role Model for Children. Accessed August 6, 2019. Retrieved from: https://www.choosemyplate.gov/ten-tips-be-a-healthy-role-model.
Hart, S. R., Pierson, S., Goto, K., & Giampaoli, J. (2018). Development and initial validation evidence for a mindful eating questionnaire for children. Appetite, 129, 178-185. doi:10.1016/j.appet.2018.07.010
Vanessa Spero-Swingle, 4-H Youth Development Agent IFAS Extension, University of Florida