Timing is everything: How mealtime structure will transform your child’s eating
Does this ever happen to you?
You make a delicious supper, which you know everyone loves, and your children aren’t hungry. They eat a bite or two and are done. You are annoyed – you know they will be hungry before bed and you want them to eat a nutritious meal.
This happens all the time in families. It’s because a little understood part of feeding children successfully is the importance of getting the timing right. The first thing I do is address timing with parents, and often that is enough to end all feeding struggles (of course with removing pressure).
The Feeding Dynamics model (sDOR) says that a parent has 3 jobs when it comes to feeding:
- WHAT TO FEED
- WHEN TO FEED
- WHERE TO FEED
WHY IT IS IMPORTANT TO GET THE TIMING RIGHT
If your child comes to a meal without an appetite, they won’t want to eat and will have no desire to try new foods. If they are snacking the whole day, then of course they can’t eat properly at meals. If they don’t eat properly at meals, then they are hungry all the time and you end up being a full-time restaurant, which is not good for anyone. You never know who is hungry, and if you should offer food or not.
HOW TO GET THE TIMING RIGHT
- Offer food regularly and reliably. Generally, offer food every 2 -3 hours for little kids (under 4) and 3 – 4 hours for older kids. They may eat or not, or only eat a bit, but if you have done your job you can know they can hold out till the next snack.
- Don’t want for them to tell you they are hungry and don’t ask if they are hungry. By the time your child knows he is hungry (especially younger children), it is too late. They are over hungry by then and may have a meltdown. Hunger presents in different ways – stomachache, headache, moody, irritable and little children often can’t verbalize when they are hungry. It’s not their job to know when they are hungry, but when food is offered regularly they will eat if they are hungry.
- No snacking in between meals. Constant snacking (or drinking milk or juice) between mealtimes guarantees your children won’t eat at meal times. You want them to come hungry, not starving, to a meal so they can eat their fill, and move on. If they aren’t hungry, they don’t eat and are hungry 30 minutes after dinner. A milk bottle lines their little tummies and takes away their appetite, and then of course they can’t eat properly.
- Structure is critical. If your child is allowed to constantly graze, they are at risk of eating out of boredom and not eating when they are hungry. Eating is not an activity to do when we are bored. It’s a way to meet our biological needs with emotional connection. If every time your child is bored you offer them a snack, you teach them to sooth their emotions with food. Offering food regularly and having a no-snack rule between planned meals and snacks is the best way to raise children who are normal around food as adults. Most feeding problems can be broken down into too little structure and too much interference.
- Kitchen closed before and after dinner. As children get older, they have more autonomy around helping themselves to snacks. This autonomy is good, but no matter what age it’s good to have a rule that says: kitchen closed 1 hour before and after dinner (or longer). It prevents mindless snacking, and allows them to come to the meal hungry. They also make sure to eat at the meal, as mommy is not giving any snacks afterwards.
- Turn snacks into mini-meals. Snacks of one food group don’t last long in kids’ (or adults) stomachs. Fruit alone or crackers alone is not sustaining. Pair two or three food groups (eg apples, peanut& milk OR crackers, cheese and cucumbers) for a snack that can last them to the next meal. This is a great list of snack ideas from pediatric dietician at Feeding Bytes.
- Planned snack after dinner. If I get the timing wrong and offer dinner too early when no one is hungry, I know they will need a snack before bed. I offer a snack (usually yogurt or cereal). This also works well if bedtime is a long while after dinner time eg dinner is at 5pm and bedtime is at 8pm. The snack is not a replacement for people who don’t like dinner, but it’s taking into account real life.
HOW IT WORKS IN REAL LIFE
I don’t always get the timing right, but the more I do get timing right, the better things are:
Example 1: Sunday morning 6.30am I give my children breakfast. By 9.30am, my 4 year is begging for a treat. I don’t get angry, but I realize that it’s been 3 hours since he ate, and he’s actually hungry. He asks for oats, but I say that I will prepare food (I had planned eggs, toast and fruit) and my job is the WHAT. He’s old enough to wait 10 minutes, and we all sit down to eat. They devour their food, and we get on with out day. I know that everyone has eaten their fill, and am not worried about offering snacks every time they cry or moan.
Example 2: My 2 year old falls asleep after school at 3pm. He wakes up at 4pm and is starving. I can either give him a snack, or give him an early supper. He’s really hungry so it’s a good time to give a nourishing meal. He eats a big bowl of spaghetti bolognaise and is happy. I could have also given him a snack to tide him over till dinner at 5.30pm, but chose to be flexible. At supper time with the rest of the family, he eats a bit of spaghetti and is satisfied.
Example 3: 15 minutes before supper my 6 year claims she is “starving”. I know she has eaten recently, and can wait. I put in a firm boundary, and she waits.
Example 4: My 4 year old goes to a friend after school and eats lunch at around 1.30pm. He then goes to soccer, and gets home at 5.30pm and we eat supper. He’s hungry and helps himself to meat, pasta, corn and bread (showing any interest in the meat is a huge thing for him). He eats a few spoons of meat and a lot of bread. When he is hungry, I see how he is willing to try new foods. He does well at meals when they are spaced far apart, but it’s not always feasible. Any snacking an hour or two before meals makes him not eat at all at meals. His sister though can eat a big snack and two hours later eat a full dinner. They have different appetites, and I accept that.
So, that’s the WHEN of feeding in a nutshell. I admit that it gets trickier when children have different school ending times, and have different schedules (some of my children eat lunch at 11am at school and some at 12pm). Every day changes, and weekends are a world of their own. Being flexible within the structure will allow for the most successful meals.