Ever heard the old saying “eating you out of house and home”? Most children will experience a period where they seem to eat everything in sight. This usually correlates with a growth spurt or other developmental milestone. But for some parents every afternoon seems to be filled with the words “I’m hungry” playing on repeat. It can become frustrating coming up with multiple snack ideas and avoiding resorting to “junk” food. If you’re currently nodding your head, here are 5 handy tips to help manage super hungry kids:
You can’t manage what you don’t measure.
Using a food journal to keep track of your child’s eating habits over a week can provide you with insightful information. This helps you determine exactly when they turn ravenous, how much they’ve devoured throughout the day and where there may be any gaps in their meal schedule.
Having this information at your disposal is going to help you implement the other 4 strategies outlined below.
Routine, Routine, Routine.
If your children skip meals and snacks, then hunger is likely to continue building throughout the day. Most parents find afternoons are their child’s hungriest time of day. Maintaining regular meal and snack times earlier in the day is going to help prevent them from reaching the insatiable stage.
Always start the day with breakfast – a bowl of cereal with milk is a quick easy option, just try and aim for ones that are based on whole grains and are low in sugar. When at school the snack times are already determined for you, so ensure they have enough nutrient dense food in their lunch box for these times.
Also, check that they are eating all the food provided – some fussy eaters won’t even touch their lunch knowing that their favourite foods will be on offer when they get home. (If you’re struggling with a fussy eater there are a few handy tips here). Time afternoon snacks so that they are not too close to dinner. It can really help to have a predetermined cut-off point, for example a ‘No Snacks after 4’ approach may work well in your household.
If meals and snacks are positioned close together then the chances are they’ll be too full of the earlier snack to eat much of the main meal. But if they don’t have enough for their main meal then they are going to feel hungry not long after it and that’s when the hunger complaints are likely to start. And so starts the vicious cycle – they fill up on snacks but then aren’t hungry for the main meal, and are then starving soon after and fill up on snacks again. Setting regular meal and snack times is going to help break that cycle.
Make it a balanced meal or snack
Providing a balanced snack that has some carbohydrate, protein and healthy fats is going to satisfy hunger and keep them feeling fuller for longer. Fruit can often be a “go-to” snack option but as far as keeping you feeling full, it doesn’t have much staying power. Give a hungry child a piece of fruit and you are nearly guaranteed to be hearing “I’m still hungry!” not long after. Teaming fruit up with protein such as yoghurt or cheese, or nuts for some healthy fats as well, will make for a much more satisfying snack that will fuel them until the next meal.
The same thing holds true for main meals. If your child is only having a vegemite sandwich for lunch, by the time afternoon tea rolls around that sandwich is long forgotten and hunger is on the rise. Add in some cheese, or even better – swap it for a cold meat and salad sandwich.
Ensure they drink plenty of water
Sometimes our bodies can confuse thirst for hunger, so keeping on top of fluid intake is the best way to guarantee that your children aren’t getting this signal mixed up. Pack a water bottle in their school bags, encourage them to have a glass of water at breakfast time, and another when they first get home from school. The recommendation is for around 1.2L for children aged 4-8, and up to 2L per day for teenagers.
Water is best for staying hydrated. Other fluids can temporarily displace food. If your child fills up on a drink of milk and isn’t having any solid food for morning tea, then it won’t be long before their stomach is grumbling and they’re back looking for more food.
Before serving up the 5th snack of the day ask yourself – “are they really hungry?” Just like adults, children and teenagers will eat when bored. In fact, a recent study found that more than 70% of adolescents will snack just because they are bored. Eating that is not in response to hunger cues increases the likelihood of consuming more calories than needed, which in turn can lead to excess weight gain over the long term. So, if they have just had a meal or snack, and boredom is a possibility, instead of providing more food try thinking of an activity to keep them occupied. Head out for a walk or a bike ride, or find another way to keep them busy until the next scheduled mealtime.
Michelle Bulman is our Paediatric Dietitian expert and can help you find practical solutions for your family.