Grazing - an eating pattern involving lots of little eating opportunities for children rather than structured meals - is a common way for parents to approach feeding.
Why? Because it works (in the short term). Unwilling eaters seem keener to nibble away as they watch TV or wander around the house. It’s often recommended for toddlers, sometimes based on the idea that young children have small stomachs and so need to eat ‘little and often’ and before you know it, the grazing habit can simply stick.
I want to explain what’s wrong with grazing, and next week, I’ll be following this post up with some ideas for introducing a healthy meal structure while still allowing for younger children needing more frequent eating opportunities than the traditional ‘three meals a day’ presents.
Five problems with grazing
If children are allowed to eat small amounts very frequently (or even constantly in some cases) they miss out on the opportunity to experience the natural rhythm of the day where they become hungry, eat and then feel full. This pattern of hunger and fullness is important because it helps children learn to listen to their bodies’ cues and successfully self-regulate. You can read more about what self-regulation means here.
Self-regulation is vital; not only does it minimise a child’s risk of obesity and eating disorders later in life, it also helps children eat in a psychologically healthy way. At the heart of a positive relationship with food is the fact the the urge to eat needs to be driven internally (by our body’s signals) not externally (by the people around us). Children who are detached from those cues because they never really experience hunger and fullness, are less likely to eat for emotionally healthy reasons.
Often, the very reason why children will eat better away from the table in an informal setting, is that they are less aware of what they are doing. The very reason it is easier for them, is also a big part of what is wrong with this approach.
Research tells us that children need multiple exposures to foods in order to begin to accept them. For some children, eating is tricky because they actually find tastes and textures (especially unfamiliar ones) challenging, unpleasant and hard to process. These are the children who are more likely to want to eat while they watch TV or play. This is because they don’t have their full attention on what they are doing, so the experience is easier. It’s a type of avoidance.
Rather than helping children have those valuable exposures (in a manageable way), allowing them to help themselves to food while they do other things is a kind of collusion in their avoidance. Every time we avoid something we find hard, we strengthen the urge to avoid it next time. Every time we have a go at something we find hard (and realise that nothing catastrophic happened) we make it easier to confront it next time.
3) Grazers miss out
Children who eat while they do other things rather than with the rest of the family, are missing out on valuable social experiences. Children learn so much by eating communally: they get to practice a ton of social skills AND they learn about eating itself, by watching how the adults around them eat.
Scientists have found that children's approach to food is very much influenced by what and how they see others eating. If your child does most of their eating by nibbling on snacks while they play, they are missing out on all that positive influence that you have to offer, in terms of how you relate to food.
4) They are in charge of the structure of meals
Anyone familiar with Ellyn Satter’s work (if you’re not, check it out) will know that it is the parent’s responsibility to set the time and place of meals and the child’s role to decide how much of what they have been offered, to eat. If children are in charge of meal structures (eg. being given snacks on demand) this distorts the feeding relationship and can lead to all sorts of problems.
5) Grazing limits the kind of food children are exposed to
You might give your child some crisps to eat while they watch TV. You’re unlikely to give them a fish pie or some curry. If children fall into a grazing pattern in toddlerhood (which is what usually happens) the chances are, the kind of foods they will be comfortable with will be dry, cold foods. This makes it even harder for them to acclimatise to trickier-to-eat wet, hot or mushy foods.
Equally, if your child is a grazer, they just won’t have sufficient appetite to manage a substantial meal and can easily fall into the trap of getting stuck with ‘picnic’ type foods which are inherently easier to eat.
So - lots of reasons to move on from grazing, but how to go about it? I tackle that here.