Scheduled meals can be difficult to arrange and implement. Are they really necessary?
Imagine you’re in a country you don’t know the culture or speak the language. You’re completely dependent on your host. At some point you get hungry, but don’t know when food will be served, but you keep thinking about food and wondering if/when you’ll get fed. Eventually, you’re seated at the table, and you just load up! Who knows when the next meal will come? At some point a little later you’re offered another meal, and same thing, you eat till (past) satisfied. You find some food on a little table one day, and you put it in your pocket for a later time, because who knows when/if you’ll have a meal today? When meals are served, you eat as much as you can, because you never know when food is available, and between meals you constantly worry about and think about when you’ll next be invited to eat.
Children need structure. In a world they don’t understand, with rules shifting and changing seemingly on whim, having a schedule helps children understand their world. And with food being such an important part of life and living, it plays a big role in childhood development, and is a large part of what children think about.
Benefits of Scheduled Meals
A meal schedule sends children the message that food will always be provided. They can trust their adults to provide this key source of life. What does that do for them?
Develop Interests and Hobbies
When adolescents don’t have to worry about food, they can focus on things other than food. They can develop hobbies, cultivate interests and worry about kid things, leaving food to their adults.
Tune into Feelings of Hunger and Fullness
When food is consistent (and kids know it!) they can trust they won’t go hungry, and so will listen to their hunger and fullness levels. This allows them to eat in response to their body’s needs- not overeating each time food is presented
Improves Eating Behavior
Breaks between eating (ie scheduled meals) allow children to feel hunger and the resulting fullness after eating, and so they eat better. Besides for the physiological need to rest the digestive system for ideal functioning, it’s important to recognize our body’s signals and cues. “Grazing” keeps us at a constant level of fullness- noshing on something as soon as we’re a bit peckish- so we never experience a full hunger. And despite it seeming like kids eat so much when grazing, they actually don’t!
Increases Food Variety
Kids eat more fruits and vegetables and more variety of nutrients. Eating a structured meal with family generally tends to improve children’s food intake. This may be from observing others enjoying food and have positive role-modeling, or the environment being conducive to being adventurous.
When a variety of food is consistently provided, you can be confident your child is meeting their nutritional needs. Intake for children varies over the course of days or weeks, so each meal is another opportunity for them to meet their requirements. Breakfast he only ate berries? Tomorrow’s lunch he may eat a salmon sandwich, and yesterday’s snack he ate cheese and cucumbers.
How to Create a Meal Schedule
Meal components are your decision, though having child input can be helpful. Plan to serve food around every 2-4 hours depending on age. Offer a variety of grains, protein, vegetables & fruit, as well as fun food. Knowing meals come frequently, and nutritious food is offered routinely, helps kids feel secure around food. Plus you can relax when your child chooses to eat nothing, small amounts, or lots of (only) one food.
Keep meal time appropriate for age and stage, and make it an enjoyable experience! Let each person decide how much to eat of each food without commentary, keeping the conversation pleasant and relaxed. Read this post for 12 Tips for Enjoyable Family Meals
Scheduled eating benefits parents and children. When kids trust that food is available at reliable times, they can focus on things others than eating. They learn to recognize their body’s hunger and fullness cues, and consistently eat better, with more nutritional variety. Parents also benefit by knowing they can trust their kids to eat a variety of food and nutrients over the course of a day or many days. They don’t have to stress that each eating experience is “perfect” because there will be many more opportunities.