Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Snacking is Good for Kids -- Grazing is Not

By Julia Moravcsik, PhD, author of Teach Your Child to Love Healthy Food

Recent research has found that a big cause of overeating in adults is eating too often.

But what is behind adults eating too often?  It's a relaxed attitude towards regular mealtimes.  It's not necessarily bad to schedule a snack or two between meals.  What's dangerous is to eat when you feel like it. It's dangerous when adults learn to eat whenever they're bored, lonely, frustrated, happy, or when they see a plate of doughnuts at work.

There is a certain freedom in knowing that there is a time for food and a time to stop thinking about food.  When it's time for a meal or snack, you can focus on the food.  When it's time to do other activities, thoughts of food don't interfere with these activities.

What is Grazing?

Although people have defined grazing in many ways, I'm going to use the word "grazing" to mean eating whenever you feel like it.

Grazing Starts in Childhood

Grazing habits start in childhood.  The French, who have much lower levels of obesity, have strict times for eating, which they take very seriously.  They don't eat "when they feel like it."  They eat at mealtimes.  And they really enjoy their food, partly because they are hungry for it.  Children in France grow up knowing that food is served at certain times of the day.

How to Prevent Grazing

Here are some ways to help prevent your child from becoming an adult who has to continually struggle with the desire to eat.

1) Don't Give Your Child Food If He Complains That He's Hungry.  Every child (and adult) should be hungry at times during the day.  Let hunger build up before meals.  Hunger is natural, and teaching a child to be afraid of the hunger sensation by scrambling to give him food will teach him to be an overeater.  If you don't feed your child when he asks, he'll soon become distracted with toys or friends and forget his hunger until dinnertime. If a meal is delayed and you feel like your child needs a little food, give him some raw vegetables. They will fill him up without spoiling his appetite. But make snacks like this a rare occurrence.

2) Have Regular Meals and Snacks at Regular Times.  Decide what times work for your family and stick with them.  If your child expects breakfast around 7:00, a snack at 10:00, lunch at 12:30, a snack at 3:00, and dinner at 5:00, that's when his stomach will send him hunger signals. 

3) Don't Let Your Child Forage for Food in the Kitchen.  You should be the one to give your child food.  It is easy for a parents to simply let their children graze in the kitchen.  But this will lead to overeating, and to eating unnutritious food.  Forbidding your child to get food for himself isn't as strict as it seems.  After all, if your spouse grabbed a bowlful of ice cream a half hour before dinner, just because he or she happened to be hungry, you would be justifiably angry that he was ruining his appetite for the delicious spaghetti that you were cooking.  

4) Be a Good Role Model.  If you forbid your child from grazing, but then you graze yourself, you will only make him more determined to eat whenever he wants.  Be a good role model and avoid grazing yourself.  You may even find that you shed a few pounds.

5) Feed Your Child Snacks, But Not Snack Food.  Food manufacturers would have you believe that junky snack foods like granola bars, crackers, cookies, or candy are the only foods you can feed your child between meals.  Don't fall for it.  You can feed your child fruit, vegetables and dip, 100% whole wheat bread and cheese, or other healthy foods for snacks.

Would you like a simple, easy-to-follow program that will teach your child to love healthy food? See my new book Teach Your Child to Love Healthy Food on amazon.com.

Here are some related articles:

Snacks -- A Good Thing
Hunger Makes Food Tasty
Vegetables and Dip: Tasty and Fun for Kids 

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  1. "Be a good role model"... How often I forget that, not only about When I eat but What I eat. Good Blog!

  2. Great distinction between snacking and grazing. I agree that the latter runs the risk of setting kids up for 'emotional eating'. That's why I personally prefer scheduling snacks. Our family (two kids ages 4 and 8) has one snack per day - at around 3:45 pm. Otherwise, they have to wait! Wrote about this today in my post on the French approach to snacking:

  3. Good post. Just one thought..if people are eating because they are lonely or frustrated....I think this is an issue of having ineffective coping mechanisms...which is about much more than simply eating. People who might be lonely or frustrated could have a number of ineffective coping mechanisms...not just eating.

  4. I think you're right, Fleur, that people who overeat as a reaction to unpleasant emotions have ineffective coping mechanisms. But the stage is set for using food as a coping mechanism if the person got used to eating at random times when they were a child.

    If a person is taught effective coping mechanisms (meditation, optimism, thought-stopping, etc.) they're more likely to be successful if they don't ALSO have to unlearn their habit of eating when they're sad.

  5. Julia, I think that has some truth to it.

    However I know families where one might struggle with alcohol, but another struggles with food.

    I also think many emotional eaters do so in private, so it isn't as if they are always doing the eating in an environment where the eating is sanctioned.

    Now obviously if one sees another family member make a statement that they are going to binge on ice cream because they had a bad day, that is another story.

  6. Thanks for the tips here...we who are handling kids for the first time and then truing to understand their psychologies is benefited by these information.

  7. Your ways to prevent overeating are insane. Kids are constantly growing and probably need a constant food source. I am an eleven year old, I go through growth spurts an some days, I am ALWAYS HUNGRY. I just eat and eat and eat, other days i will skip lunch and eat only a little bit of dinner. My parents never force food upon me, and they never make me wait until a certain time of day to eat something. I know what your saying about people eating when they get bored, and no one should do that, but you don't have to have a hawk eye on your kid just so they don't eat before the meal time.

  8. @Anonymous: Thanks for the smart comment. It's hard to think that other people may have different situations from ourselves. You're growing and you feel hungry a lot. But many people are in other situations. Most children are overweight or will become overweight some time in their lives. Finding some food to eat because they're feeling starved isn't their problem. Stopping themselves from compulsively eating is their problem. You may even find yourself in this situation in a few years.

    Most cultures other than America (and countries who are influenced by America) don't grab snacks for themselves. That goes for children and adults alike. They may have standard snacks that they eat every day (like mini-meals), but they don't graze. I know this seems unfathomable because you're used to eating when you're hungry, but these kids get by fine. They learn to eat more at mealtimes. Their parents aren't keeping a hawk eye on them -- they don't need to. They know that everyone in their culture eats when food is put on the dinner table.

    1. Hmmmmmmm... I never thought of it that way. Thank you for further explaining it.

  9. I have to disagree. I graze constantly but it's not boredom or comfort eating. It's hunger. I've eaten like that my whole life and have no weight issues at all. My husband who eats 3 times a day tends to overeat at meals because he is so hungry he wolffs down his food. He moans about how it's unfair that I stay trim without the effort he puts in. The difference? My grazing is on things like nuts,seeds, fruit and veg. I make a tray of a selection of similar healthy foods for my toddler. Our only set meal times are breakfast and supper. Some days my toddler finishes his tray, other days it's almost untouched. At 2 he is very good at self regulating. Interestingly he has learnt to moderate himself and even at parties with their explosion of rubbish foods he will not overindulge. Our ancestors as hunter gatherers would forage for food eating while ob the go - much like our closest relatives the great apes. Our inability to control our intake stems more to our lifestyles. It's much healthier to maintain a steady blood sugar over the course of a day. Unfortunately most people graze on donuts and other rubbish.

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  13. Three months ago, I decided to switch to healthier food choices. One of my friends recommended Luke’s Organic Chips and Crackers and I decided to give them a try. I must say, they are the best organic snacks I’ve ever had. My favorite is the brown rice chips (tastes better than it sounds) and my 4yr old loves the sea salt crackers. You can purchase them from our local Costco here in San Jose, CA or visit www.lukesorganic.com to find a retailer near you.

  14. I let my kids graze. However, what they can graze on is strictly fruits, vegetables, nuts and occassional grain. I give my children a rich diversity in FRESH options. They generally do a great job regulating themselves and stop eating when they are not hungry. I also do not "push" my kids to eat when they say they are full. My kids are much leaner and less picky than their peers, whom are not "grazers" and eat more junk food and are "encouraged" to "have one more bite."

    I remember growing up I was always hungry. I had major tummy issues and couldn't eat certain foods. My diet growing up was strictly regulated by parents, school and day care (they ignored my tummy troubles and served what was most convenient at the time).
    So, most foods were canned, prepackaged and not at all varied or fresh. There were many meals I had to choose whether to have tummy trouble or crazy hunger pains (you know, if you're hungry enough you will eat it mentality). When I did come across good food, I overengorged. I found out later, there was something wrong with my intestines and the food I was served was actually doing me harm. Bad eating habbits were adopted to help me survive in sparce times for over 18 years. Now, these habbits are considerably difficult to change now I have food freedom. I strongly beleive that I would not have such food insecurity if I was able to have more freedom of when or more importantly, what I could eat.

    Remember, canned and prepackaged overly sugary foods were deemed "healthy" back then. And was assumed that "picky eaters" are just trying to "bully" or "undermine" a parent. Health and social philosophies change quickly and I believe we all do the best we can.

    1. I also encourage my kids and their friends to LICK, if they do not want to eat a new food (I also do not force them to eat it later). Because I do not force a full bite, the experience of trying a new food is shortened, less distressful and makes the child more willing to taste more variety of foods. Just a bad experience can leave a bad taste in one's mouth... even if eating the sweetest of cake.


I'd love to hear your opinions, questions, or comments.