Like adults, kids eat for a variety of reasons, but hunger should be the primary driver.
Your child just ate dinner. Thirty minutes later he says he’s hungry. Is he really hungry? It seems unlikely, given the fact that he just ate a full meal. So, what’s going on?
If you’re a parent, you know that children aren’t always hungry when they say they are or when they ask for something to eat. Sometimes they’re bored. Sometimes they have a sweet tooth they want to satisfy. Sometimes they’re excited, or maybe they’re sad.
Eating in the Absence of Hunger
Like adults, kids eat for a variety of reasons. In children, a phenomenon called eating in the absence of hunger, or EAH, describes the eating that occurs when children aren’t hungry.
According to a 2015 review in the journal Appetite, EAH tends to develop between age 5 and 9, when there is greater awareness of food and the environmental triggers to eat become more prominent. Eating highly palatable foods, like sweets, when not hungry has been associated with childhood obesity in boys and girls under the age of 12.
Food availability, especially sweets and salty snacks, play a role in the development of EAH, but a parent’s feeding style and practices, a child’s genetic makeup and socioeconomic status can also influence the development of EAH. Although the reasons for EAH aren’t always clear, research provides some clues.
Here are six reasons kids eat when they’re not hungry – and what you can do about it:
A poor sense of appetite: A child may be out of touch with body signals that tell her to start eating and when to stop. The appetite cues of hunger and fullness form the basis for eating. Some children lose this sense of appetite regulation early in childhood when a parent’s feeding practices, like having a child finish the bottle or jar of baby food, override it.
Teach your child about physical hunger and how to recognize and honor her appetite cues. Use phrases such as “hungry belly” and “happy belly” to help young toddlers associate their physical sensation with hunger and fullness signs. Encourage older children to listen to their bodies and base eating on appetite cues. You can say, “What is your body telling you?”
[See: 6 Healthy Foods Worth Splurging On.]
High responsiveness to food: A child may light up when she’s around food. That is, she’s responsive to food. She may eat food because it looks good. She may remember eating a certain food and liking it, wanting to indulge again. If others are eating, she may be inclined to eat, too. If certain foods like sweets have been scarce or tightly regulated in the home, she may show more interest in those foods and less control over how much of them she eats.
Research suggests moderating the home environment by keeping palatable foods out of sight. You don’t want to restrict them, because this can contribute to an increased responsiveness to them. Rather, bring desserts and treats out at predictable, scheduled times and don’t make eating veggies a condition for indulging in them.
Impulsiveness around food: The child who can’t stop eating or who can’t resist the temptation to eat may have what is called low inhibitory control. A child with low inhibitory control may be more responsive to sweets and snack foods and may not be able to control his consumption of those foods in the moment.
Over time, low inhibitory control may lead to excess eating and weight gain. Restricting highly palatable foods complicates the scenario, making overindulgence more likely and lowering the resistance to the temptation.
Instead, neutralize all foods, allowing room for treats and sweets, so they don’t become the object of desire. Use a strategy for including sweets and other tasty foods, such as the 90/10 rule, where children may have one or two indulgent foods on average each day. Allow your child to choose which indulgent foods he will eat.
Emotional eating: A child who has learned to comfort himself with food may be an emotional eater. In other words, when he is sad, happy, frustrated, angry or has any uncomfortable emotions, he turns to food for solace. Emotional eating is learned early when a child’s uncomfortable feelings are placated with food.
Help your child identify uncomfortable emotions and welcome open communication about them. When your child is sad, disappointed, lonely or stressed, encourage him to talk about those feelings. Communication is a healthy way to deal with uncomfortable emotions. Turning to food to numb them is not.
[Read: Is Your Approach to Feeding Your Kids All Wrong?]
Boredom: Your child is eating because she can’t find anything else to do. Eating due to boredom can quickly turn into a habit of mindless eating, or eating without paying attention to one’s level of fullness and the quantities of food consumed. You want your child to pay attention to food when she’s eating so that she can fully enjoy it and be aware of her body’s responses to it.
Keep your child occupied with activities that don’t involve food, such as chores, playing outside or taking lessons in an art or playing a sport. A simple way to help your child regulate extra eating is to close the kitchen between meals and snacks. Closing the kitchen directs your child away from food and toward other activities. Avoid eating environments that encourage mindless eating, like eating in the car or in front of the TV.
Food restriction: Tightly controlling or restricting indulgent foods may sound like a good way to encourage healthy eating in kids, but it can backfire. Food restriction may increase the desire for those foods that are restricted, while making overeating them when they are available more likely. For instance, if sugar is tightly controlled or even avoided in your home, your child may demonstrate a strong desire for it and may overeat it when it’s available.
Set limits for indulgent foods, but don’t restrict them. Letting children know when they can expect their favorite foods can help calm their response to them. Regularly timed meals and snacks help satisfy your child’s appetite and give you a framework for offering treats and sweets, allowing you to moderate your child’s exposure to them.
Help Your Child Develop Self-Regulation Skills
Children eat because they are physically hungry, but they also eat because they think they are hungry, are triggered by food or have a history with eating that was negative. Sometimes, they eat out of boredom or habit.
Kids should eat because they are physically hungry most of the time. Of course, children will desire food that looks and tastes good (just like adults do), and there will be times when other reasons for eating, like the pleasure of enjoying dessert, take over. These shouldn’t be the primary drivers for eating, however.
[See: 12 Questions You Should Ask Your Kids at Dinner.]
Ultimately, you want your child to develop a healthy relationship with food. While providing nutritious food is important , you also want to help your child learn to self-regulate his appetite, food choices and eating.