Should babies and children graze throughout the day or should you only offer 3 meals?
Grazing is when your child eats between designated mealtimes or sit-down snacks. There are many reasons why this might happen. Here are 6 reasons why I recommend avoiding allowing kids to graze between meals and snacks.
1. Food to calm things down
Sometimes when your little one is grizzly, upset or throwing a tantrum it is easy to offer a food that you know they like to cheer them up. Stop and think for a minute! If you are offering them regular meals and sit-down snacks there is no need for foods in between. Teaching your child to use foods as a comfort when they are sad, tired or wanting attention may set them up for comfort eating as they get older. Instead – give them your attention and a hug or perhaps it might be time for a nap.
2. Food as a distraction
You might be at the supermarket or you might be wanting to keep your little one in their pram at a café while you chat with a friend. You could be waiting for a doctor’s appointment or just trying to get some house work done at home. It can be tempting to give children food to distract them for a few minutes. Again – stop and think! Your child doesn’t need food – they are likely just bored or wanting attention. Avoid offering food when they are bored and give them attention and a job to do! If you are doing housework – that might mean getting them involved – hand them a cloth to help clean. If you are at the supermarket it could mean passing them items to throw into the trolley or giving them a toy to play with. Teaching kids to eat when they are bored is setting them up to do this as an adult.
3. Food as a reward
It’s also important that we do not use foods to reward good behaviour or achievements – this can set up more associations between food and managing emotions. Rather than “If you behave really well while we are shopping/if you pack up all your toys you can have an (insert child’s desired food)” find non-food ways to praise and reward your child. This could be just spending time together or it might be using a sticker chart. Show your child love through hugs and telling them you love them rather than by using food. Much like using food to calm things down or as a distraction using food as a reward sets children up for using food as a reward or punishment to themselves as they get older.
4. Oral and dental health
Did you know that it takes between 30 minutes to an hour to restore the neutral pH of the mouth and restore minerals to tooth enamel lost in an acid attack? According to the Joint Position Statement on Oral Health and Nutrition released by the Dietitians Association of Australia and Dental Health Services Victoria the amount of sugar eaten is not as important as the frequency that children eat it. For this reason, they recommend avoiding continuous feeding of any drink (other than water) between meals, as well as avoiding grazing between meals and snacks to reduce the frequency of acid attacks that lead to dental caries.
5. It isn’t your child’s job to decide what or when they eat
According to Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility it is your job as a parent to decide the WHAT, WHEN and WHERE of feeding. It’s your child’s job to decide HOW MUCH and WHETHER to eat what you have offered. When we consider grazing it is often the child deciding the WHAT and WHEN – I know in my house my 3-year-old will often grab something out of the cupboard or an apple out of the fruit bowl – usually within 30 minutes of dinner being on the table. Babies and young children can’t understand that dinner will be ready soon. If my son eats the apple it is guaranteed he will pick at a little bit of dinner or want to leave the table as he just isn’t hungry enough. If your kids are requesting food consider a few things – are they bored? Have you offered them a meal/snack every 2-3 hours? Are they just getting hungry because the next meal is soon? We want kids to come to the table hungry so letting them know that dinner is not far away can reassure them that food is coming!
6. Nutrition and growth
The foods often eaten between meals and sit-down snacks or when out and about are fruit or biscuits/crackers and other ’kids/baby snack foods’ offering little nutrition. When children fill up on these easy to eat snack foods it means that they won’t come to the next meal hungry – which contain the more nutritious foods that parents want them to eat like meat and vegetables. In my clinic I often see parents concerned about their baby/young child’s slow growth. They are often offering lots of snacks thinking that it will aid growth – but the reality is it usually means the child eats less at meals. Even a child with slow growth shouldn’t graze all day.
Routine and family meals are important – evidence shows this for both children and adults. In order for children to arrive at the table hungry and ready to eat they can’t graze in between on food or drinks (other than water). Children only have small tummies so need to eat every couple of hours. I recommend families follow a routine of breakfast, morning tea, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner.
If your children are in the habit of grazing over the day start by setting meal and sit down snack-times. Don’t worry about changing WHAT you are offering, that can come after your family is used to their new routine. The key to feeding children is ‘parents provide, children decide’. Offer a variety of foods and allow your children to take responsibility for how much and if they eat what you offer. Regardless of how much they eat at a sitting, stick to the meal/snack routine –trust that your child knows how much they need to eat each time you offer food.
Paediatric Dietitian & Lactation Consultant – Healthy Start Nutrition
This website and information on this blog post is provided for educational purposes. It is not meant or intended to replace Dietetic assessment/ management or medical care for a child. It is recommended that you discuss any concerns or questions you might have about your child’s feeding/nutrition with Kathleen individually and develop an individualised plan specifically for your child.
About the author of this blog post
Kathleen Halliday is a Paediatric Dietitian & Lactation Consultant with extensive experience working with children and their families – especially around fussy eating, stressful mealtimes, growth concerns and nutritional management of many medical conditions.
Healthy Start Nutrition is a private practice based in Melbourne, Victoria.