This is the second in a two-part series of posts on grazing. In my last article, I explained why grazing can be problem. In this piece, I’ll be talking about how to put an end to grazing in a way that is manageable for your child.
Feeding expert, Ellyn Satter, uses her DoR (Division of Responsibility) model to explain that it is parents’ job to decide when and where meals happen. (If you are not familiar with DoR, this great article by Sarah Remmer will give you a good overview). When your child is in a grazing pattern, your roles are skewed… you need to put a clear meal and snack schedule in place so that you can carry out this part of your feeding role successfully.
Getting on a schedule does not mean snacks are banned
I am not advising you that all children should be on a schedule of three meals a day, regardless of age. Many (most) children need eating other opportunities throughout the day besides breakfast, lunch and dinner. But offering snacks doesn't have to mean abandoning structure.
Step one - draw up your schedule
The way I teach parents to introduce structure is to put together a draft schedule, based on your child’s age and stage. This article from Maryann Jacobsen, provides a fantastic overview of the research into how many eating opportunities children need during a day. She also makes the very important point that we need to think about what snacks are comprised of, not just when they happen.
There are lots of great resources online, offering you information on what your child’s nutritional needs may be. Remember that every child is different and (as Maryann points out) a child who tends to eat lots at main meals will be able to go longer between meals. Equally, like adults, children’s metabolism varies across individuals too.
You don’t have to get it right first time!
Given that it’s kind of impossible to guess your child’s needs exactly (AND their needs change over time) I suggest taking a ‘suck it and see’ approach.
Try a schedule out for size, and then review. The important thing is to give it enough time before you decide it needs tweaking. I suggest at a week, maybe even ten days. That way, your child will have begun to get used to the new pattern and you will see if needs any adjustments.
You will know that your schedule needs amending if your child isn’t sitting down to meals and snacks with an appetite. For example, Mary gave her five year old son Jack, three meals a day plus a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack. Jack was not hungry when it came to his evening meal. This was consistent for over a week, so Mary experimented with dropping the afternoon snack and this seemed to be the right routine for Jack.
Conversely, ten-year-old Jacob’s mother, Sarah, had been noticing that Jacob was always saying he was hungry at bedtime, even though he had eaten plenty for dinner. She tried a new schedule where Jacob was offered some supper before bed. This worked really well for him - he was doing a lot of sport and growing apace, and just needed a little bit more to eat than he had done a few months previously.
Frequently Asked Questions:
I thought it might be useful to share some of the questions parents often ask me when I talk to them about introducing more structure to feeding and taking back control in terms of deciding when and where your child will be eating.
“My child isn’t used to having to wait for food - I feel horrible making her go hungry”
“Making a child go hungry” does sound horrible - this is not your aim. Your goal needs to be getting to a place where you have got a schedule that works for your child so that they are coming to meals and snacks hungry but never getting excessively hungry. It’s important to realise that appetite is good! If your child is feeling a bit hungry in the run up to a meal, this helps them learn to self-regulate: by allowing them to experience a bit of hunger before a meal, you are actually being nurturing.
Let me explain: Feeling hungry before a meal and full after it, is the natural rhythm we should all be aspiring to. It means we are in tune with our bodies’ cues. If your child is extremely hungry or appears to be very affected by their need for food (low blood sugar, lethargic, very irritable etc.) your schedule needs a tweak. It’s all about balance. Feeling hungry is okay - even desirable. Being extremely hungry for long periods of time, is not.
“My son will moan constantly that he is not being given food on demand, or being allowed to help himself to snacks - this is what he is used to!”
Like so many aspects of parenting, if you explain clearly to your child that you are going to be doing things differently (and then you are 100% consistent about that) after a while, they will learn that this is how things are; they will lose motivation to ask for food repeatedly as they will learn that they don’t get anything back from it.
Children tend to pursue behaviours that work for them. It’s like giving in to a tantruming toddler (something we’ve all done and know we shouldn’t). As soon as you’ve given in once, the bright little person kicking and screaming on the floor in front of you will learn that kicking and screaming pays, and will try the same strategy next time.
It can be really helpful to put a poster on the wall displaying your meal / snack schedule. If they are old enough, try getting your child involved with writing or decorating it for added buy-in. Then you have something to refer to every time your child asks for something. Just keep on calmly re-iterating “we will be having lunch in one hour - there’s nothing until then” and remind them they can check the poster.
“We are a busy family - how can I always ensure that we can stick to our meal and snack schedule when we have sports and other activities to fit in?”
There are very few families who are at home all day everyday - most of us parents are glorified taxi services, taking kids to swimming, friends’ houses, music lessons… It’s important to be flexible and realistic. Having a schedule doesn’t mean that you can’t deviate as necessary. It’s what you do most of the time, that counts.
"My child is not a great eater - she will find changing to structured mealtimes really difficult. How should I handle this? "
If you think moving towards a more structured approach to eating will be really hard on your child, break the process down into small steps. For example, if they graze before school in the mornings, as well as when they get home from school and during the evenings, begin with one period of the day and decide that, for example, after school there is a scheduled snack between 3:30 and 4pm, then nothing until dinner at 6pm. Continue to allow them to graze before school and after dinner. One week in, when they are used to the change, bring breakfast into your schedule, allowing your child to eat breakfast at a set time only. Finally, you can bring structure to the entire day, but at your child's pace.
I'm a huge fan of involving children in changes if they are old enough to understand and engage with this. Explain your decision to move towards structured eating. If you decide to make the changes in a 'stepped' way like I've just described, get them to help you choose and plan the steps. When we respect children by involving them like this, they often repay us by really rising to the challenge. And when they understand that we have a rationale for our decisions and are not just being controlling, this can help too.
Give this a go...
If you feel that you have an issue with grazing, give a schedule a try. Plan it out, try it for ten days, remain consistent and know that if you can help your child ease into a daily rhythm of hunger and fullness, you are supporting a positive relationship with food that will last a lifetime.