Parents should decide what, when and where food is eaten. But children should decide for themselves how much.
Just as children need support when they learn to read, write or ride a bike, they need support learning to eat in moderation, especially during snack time. Snacks are usually the most challenging to moderate because children often prefer snack foods to what is served for dinner. Most kids can control the amount of broccoli they consume much more easily than they can control the number of cookies, so if you want to teach your children to snack and eat sweets in moderation, follow these six steps.
1. Teach them to recognize hunger cues. Children won’t be able to recognize how much they should eat at snack time if they don’t understand how hungry they are. Explain what hunger feels like and how to tell when feeling full, then ask how hungry they feel before every snack. This will help children connect hunger levels to the amount they choose to eat.
2. Allow your child to listen to hunger and satiety cues without any input from you. Have you ever noticed that some days your child can finish an entire bowl of ice cream and other times won’t want more than a bite? How sometimes they are ravenous in the morning and other times too tired to even think about breakfast? Our children must learn to trust their own constantly changing hunger and satiety cues, otherwise they may learn to habitually overeat. As Dina Rose says in her book “It’s Not About the Broccoli,” “even if it turned out, by some stroke of magic, that you do know how much your kids ought to eat, you still shouldn’t interfere. Teaching kids to trust your instincts rather than their own instincts prevents your children from learning how to self-regulate.”
3. Give them practice. Just as children need practice reading before they reach chapter books, and practice driving before they hit the roads alone, they need practice figuring out how much they should eat at any one time. To teach them this, follow author Ellyn Satter’s division of responsibility in which parents are responsible for what food is put on the table, when meals and snacks are served, and where children eat. Children are responsible for how much they eat — and whether they eat at all. By giving kids control over how much they eat at every meal and snack, you are giving them the moderation practice they need.
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4. Set a specific snack time. The kitchen or snack cabinet should not be open all day. Snack times should be designated between breakfast and lunch, between lunch and dinner and should be kept brief. After sitting down and enjoying a snack, your child should move to another activity and be given plenty of time to rebuild an appetite before the next meal.
5. Create snack drawers. Create a refrigerator snack drawer full of foods such as hard-boiled eggs, blueberries, carrots and yogurt, and always have a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter. Also, create a snack drawer outside the refrigerator. Fill it with mostly healthful snacks such as applesauce, raisins and nutritious bars, but add a few less healthy items, such as leftover candy. Explain that at snack time, they may eat from either of these locations.
6. Set a family rule for sugary foods. Let’s say you allow one sugary food a day (as this makes for a clean example). Tell your children it is entirely up to them when to have that food each day. It could be during snack time, in a lunchbox or after dinner. Then place the sugary snacks next to the healthy snacks. Do this because a child who truly listens to their body might reach for the candy but then see the applesauce and decide that is what they really desire. The power of junk food dissipates when it becomes appropriately accessible.
Creating a snack drawer and giving your children some control over it could possibly ease your eating worries. When you take the leftover candy and dole it out in a snack drawer, it doesn’t hold as much power. As Rose explains, “When you break up the contents, the candy collection no longer seems like a set. As a result, your kids won’t feel entitled to eat it all at once.”
Potty training your children didn’t happen overnight. Neither did teaching them to ride a bike. Moderation won’t be any different; it is best taught one snack at a time.
Casey Seidenberg is co-founder of Nourish Schools, a Washington, D.C.-based nutrition-education company, and co-author of “Super Food Cards,” a collection of healthful recipes and advice.