Parents who still have house-bound summer kids may notice an uptick in the number of trips to the grocery store, or even to the pantry to refill another snack bowl. But when dinnertime comes around, your kid is suddenly "full" and unwilling to eat what you've made. Which begs the question, how can you tell if a child is actually hungry and not just bored? It happens to the best of us — how many trips to the break room does it take to slog through all those TPS reports? — but your little one's health and sanity demand that they learn to distinguish a physical need to refuel from a need for stimulation. (Especially if they're avoiding dinner.)
Occasionally using food to satisfy needs besides hunger is known as emotional eating, and it's not always a bad thing, especially when it's used as an occasional treat. Food releases dopamine, a chemical that stimulates reward centers in our brain, noted an article in Frontiers in Psychology, and can be a momentary release from summertime ennui, but kids who learn to depend on the emotional benefits of food are at higher risk of obesity as adults.
Boredom, on the other hand, can be good for kids if they learn to manage it in constructive ways — overeating is not one of them. As parents, our first impulse is to relieve them of unstructured and unproductive time by creating activities (or chores!) to add a little order to their day, and that's great, but by shutting down the pantry and kicking them off the computer, kids have more freedom to explore their imaginations and the world around them without distractions.
So how do you make sure to instill good eating habits? "Kids and adults both eat for emotional reasons, and kids maybe do it mindlessly because in the summer they're bored and not on a schedule," says Betsy Opyt, a licensed dietician and nutritionist in Naples, Florida, in an interview with Romper. "A lot of the time, kids just eat out of the bag, so mindful eating and mindful portions is what the parents should work on because it’s a habit the kids are going to need later when they go off to college."
So when you hear your school-aged kid rustling around in the cabinet again before dinnertime, how can you tell the difference? First, ask them how hungry they are on a scale of one to 10, with one being absolutely famished and 10 being full to the point of bursting, recommended the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Many children will need a little practice to distinguish the scale of their hunger, but older kids and little ones who get the hang of it should be pretty accurate. Any number above a five means they can wait until their next meal.
If they fall in the middle of the scale, you can offer a glass of water, milk, or a piece of fruit. Kids often can't distinguish between thirst and hunger, and many times will be satisfied for a bit with a drink. On the other hand, they will welcome some boring fruit or vegetables if they are actually a bit peckish.
Boredom, on the other hand, requires a different approach. When children aren't accustomed to entertaining themselves for long periods of time, they might use food to fill the hours. Instead, give your child at least five minutes of your time to be sure they're not starved for attention, and then suggest some self-directed activities. According to Aha! Parenting, kids are actually pretty good at amusing themselves once they get over the idea that they need a screen or a play partner, so some creative or physical fun alone, like painting or riding their bike, will be a good way to distract them from the snacks.
Of course, the best way ensure your child isn't actually starving at odd times is to provide three nutritious meals and a few snacks to keep them going. Keeping the kitchen stocked with healthy tidbits will also discourage them from seeking the chemical pleasures of salt, fat, and sweets, and minimize the damage if they do. Opyt suggests parents keep an attractive veggie tray replete with an appealing dip at eye level in the refrigerator.
"It’s about filling up on fiber and getting back to whole foods," she said. "I keep a veggie platter. There’s hummus in the middle and pretty vegetables around it and I keep it full at all times. It’s accessible."
One thing to remember if you feel called to be the pantry police is that increased hunger during growth spurts is normal, particularly in older kids and teenagers. Besides needing a lot of food, kids who are stretching will also sleep more and be a bit more accident-prone than usual, according to Abbott Nutrition. Again, these guys will be perfectly happy to accept healthy snacks — perhaps more than you realize — to stave off hunger between meals.