Kids’ appetites vary day to day, and parents often worry if their child is getting too much or not enough. For some kids, their appetite can leave you feeling like a waiter, chef, and busboy without a break. We know it can be overwhelming as a mom when it comes to parenting food! We caught up with nutrition experts to get their tried and tested advice on snacking, appetites, and excess weight.
Warren: It’s important to get the whole family on board and not solely advise the overweight child to eat healthily. This strategy is critical to the self-esteem of the child and his/her motivation to eat healthy. It helps to have an encouraging support system. I advise caregivers to treat all family members equally when it comes to the meals and snacks being offered.
When counseling a child who is overweight, I remind them that the way they are eating is the way everyone is supposed to be eating. What one person looks like on the outside has nothing to do with what they are supposed to be eating on the inside. Everyone needs to be healthy; eating a balanced diet is simply something we all need to do. The way they are feeding themselves is giving them what they need to grow up and be big and strong. I ask what foods they enjoy eating and then remind them that all foods can be part of a healthy diet and that it’s just a matter of how much at one time and how often they are eating them. I focus on the positives of all the foods they can eat and which they can eat more of, instead of focusing on negatives and restricting, which doesn’t help maintain a healthy weight in the long run.
Lemond: Diets don’t work for anyone, and they especially don’t work for children.There are other layered implications to putting children on diets that cannot be overstated. Eating is such a basic need for growing humans, and they need security knowing that this basic need will be met.
The best intervention we can do is provide a balanced variety of food choices and avoid excessive “sometimes” foods in the home. Instead, increase the “always” foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, and lentils. Model healthy eating, and provide acceptable and structured choices for your child to enjoy. Couple that with a minimum of 60 minutes of active play each day and minimize sedentary behaviors.
Lemond: This finding is not definitively one reason. However, it could be a sign that a child is being over-controlled with food and they feel the need to sneak it. Sweet foods are a normal preference for children because they are in a time of rapid growth. Sweets and food that are high fat (ever see a child eat butter straight off a spoon?) are extra tasty to them because they contain a high concentration of calories.
In my experience as a pediatric practitioner, I find that the reasons often differ slightly between finding hidden candy vs. hidden food. Hidden candy could just be a little rebellious act where they just wanted something sweet when they didn’t think it would be approved otherwise. Finding hidden food is typically a deeper issue that can accompany a feeling of not being able to eat when hungry so they need to sneak the food.
With the scenario of hiding food, we typically meet with the parents and go over the divisions of responsibilities when it comes to feeding children. We know that the best scenario is to keep parents in charge of their responsibilities (the what/when/how of eating – type of food, regular structure of mealtimes and snack times and eliminating distractions/maximizing family meals when possible) and have the children maintain their responsibilities (kids can decide to eat as much as they want or not eat anything at all when it comes time for meals or snacks). Once we get these re-established in the home, the children stop hiding food.
Vazquez: When a child just finishes eating and he asks for more, or is eating every hour, or eating while watching TV. Here is an example of a client (I’ve changed his name):
Jose is 8 years of age and wears a size 16, his BMI percentile is > 99. Jose eats 4-5 big meals per day, and snacks on chips, drinks sodas, juices, and whole milk. His mother was referred to me, and during our initial visit, she verbalized anger with Jose’s doctor since the doctor never told her before that Jose had a weight problem. I found out that when Jose was 4 or 5 years old Jose already looked heavy and his clothes were size 10-12. She did not do anything because none of the health professionals mentioned that Jose was overweight.
As in this case, I have seen dozens with the same scenario. I always point out that if the child is wearing 2 – 3 sizes bigger than his age, please do not wait until the doctor tells the parent that it is time for a nutrition intervention. I encourage parents to take action and ask their health professionals for a referral to a dietitian. (I.e., if the child is 8 years of age, ideally, he should be wearing clothes size 8 unless he is tall for his age, and so on, and then go to the MD for an assessment of the child’s height/weight/BMI percentile, etc). You can also visit the CDC.gov website section to assess your children’s body mass index (BMI). You can also visit https://www.eatright.org/find-an-expert to find a registered dietitian nutritionist near you.
Vazquez: 2- 3 snacks throughout the day. Be mindful of serving size.
Vazquez: A black bean tostada with a baked corn tortilla, topped with guacamole or a mango salsa, baby carrots or jicama sticks with a low-fat yogurt dip, or mango slices with a low-fat yogurt.
It’s normal! First, let them know that weight gain is a natural and normal part of growing up. Emphasize that beauty and bodies come in all shapes and sizes, avoid discussing diets, and try not to label foods as “good” or “bad.” Instead, focus on teaching your children healthy eating skills they can use throughout life. For example, show them healthier choices by comparing food labels when grocery shopping with your kids. Ask them, “which do you think is the better choice and why?” If you’re comparing two yogurts, choose one with lower added sugar and more protein, or for cereals, more whole grains, lower sugar, and higher fiber. Talk about “everyday foods” and how they fuel us versus “sometimes foods” that don’t give us the energy and nutrition we need to feel our best. Everyday foods are closest to nature. For example, an “everyday food” is an apple whereas a “sometimes food” is apple juice. Discuss the benefits of a well-balanced diet –feeling good, thinking better, and having more energy.
Be a Role Model! Set a good example for your children by eating healthfully and regularly. Aim to have breakfast and dinner with them several times a week so they can learn from your eating behaviors. Sit down for meals rather than eating on the go. Do not use food as a reward or punishment and do not obsess about food choices and weight.
Engage in positive self-talk. Notice how you speak about yourself and your body in front of others. Children pick up negative cues about body image very early on. When you compliment others, do so for their personality traits or actions rather than appearance. It may seem obvious, but play close attention to the comments you make around your kids or friend’s physical traits. It’s okay to say, “you look stylish,” but best to avoid saying, “you look so thin in that!” Encouraging healthy body image during childhood and the teenage years is crucial to prevent the development of eating disorders or poor body image in later stages of development. Kids as young as five start to think about their weight. Have you crashed dieted for an event, followed a fad diet or made comments about someone’s recent weight gain? Then don’t be surprised if your child’s behavior reflects this. Focus on a healthy body, not a “perfect body,” as defined by online influences, glossy magazines or fashion campaigns, like this one with a super waif mini-mouse. Pay attention. For older children, notice there are certain risk factors such as dieting or using diet pills, rapid or erratic weight loss, wearing oversized clothing, secretive or ritualistic behaviors around food, talking about being fat frequently or spending a long time in bathrooms. Do address this with your tween/teen and seek the necessary medical help. Listen to your kids – you’ll be surprised what they’ll share with open-ended questions. You may learn about potential unhealthy influences you can manage together once you’re aware.
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