Are You Structured When It Comes To Feeding Your Kids?

I’m always amazed at the structured discipline that parents hold themselves to when getting their kids ready for bed. Almost on the clock: bath, story, bed. And for good reason. Any parent worth their salt knows that successful sleep patterns begin with the repetition of a nightly routine. Routines tell children what’s about to happen and what’s expected of them. Rituals create order for children.

But when it comes to eating, structure seems to go right out the window. So often when children are hungry, they expect snacks. When they’re fidgety at the pediatrician’s office, out come the Goldfish. Often the limited diets and poor habits that children develop are our doing.

The foundation of healthy feeding is a tight routine. While I’m a strong advocate of feeding on demand in early infancy, it doesn’t work for toddlers. Why?

  • Feeding on demand promotes grazing. This creates havoc with our digestive hormones and stunts the appetite. Just like your mother used to tell you, if you fill up on junk, you won’t eat your dinner.
  • Feeding on demand puts feeding on their terms. While children do have to assume responsibility for what they eat, they lack the judgment to do this entirely on their own. You set the boundaries of what’s appropriate and leave the rest to them.
  • Feeding on demand sends the wrong message about food. Children must learn that the impulse to eat will not always be fulfilled. Older children are more apt to use food to fulfill other impulses other than hunger and the need to nourish.

After the first year, plan on three squares a day, two snacks, and watch out for that appetite-numbing wander cup with milk and juice.

By the way, my weakness is a handful of cashews during the hour before dinner. Of course when I grab ‘em the kids are in tow looking for their own. So as we eat, so shall they feed!

About Dr. Bryan Vartabedian, Gastroenterologist

I am a Pediatric Gastroenterologist at Texas Children's Hospital.

I write about the intersection between medicine and social media in my personal blog, 33 Charts.

Posted in Nutrition, Parenting

8 Responses to Are You Structured When It Comes To Feeding Your Kids?

  1. Chris says:

    Dr. V,
    Does your advice apply to kids of all ages? What age range did you have in mind here?
    Thanks!

  2. Erin says:

    Dr. V,
    For older children, how would you recommend spacing out snacks and meals to accommodate growth spurts?

    I’m always really impressed with the work of Texas Children’s, and the blog is no exception! Way to go, TCH!

    • Bryan Vartabedian says:

      Erin – I think that structure needs to play some role in every child’s diet even beyond the toddler age group. Unrestrained access to even healthy snacks in the late afternoon hour is likely to impact a balanced meal in the evening. Keep in mind that as children grow older an enter periods of increased caloric demand, they’ll voice their need very clearly. This still can be done within reasonable constraints of a loose schedule. Keep in mind that it isn’t a crime for a child to be hungry a 4:30 in the afternoon. They’ll have their chance when dinner comes around.

      And thanks for your input on the blog. The TCH marketing folks worked very hard over the past several months making sure that the essentials were in place. It will be fun to see how it evolves.

      I hope to see you back.

  3. Kelly Z Sennholz M.D. says:

    Fantastic post and information that can’t be said enough. The poor eating habits of our children are developed early in life by allowing grazing on processed junk. Parents need to feel confident that doing the right thing is appropriate as there are not many role models for this!!

    In addition, doing three SMALL meals and two moderate snacks is a great eating habit for adults, too and a great way to model.

    Also, I would say these eating habits can continue well after preschool for these kids, but great, great post!!

  4. Bryan Vartabedian says:

    Well said, Kelly. As I mentioned, failure in my own structure is carried along to my kids who watch.

  5. Kelly says:

    My child has been a grazer all her life (she’s 8) she’s in the normal range for weight, a little on the low side. She was treated for cancer (a Wilms tumor) at TCH, she hated the nutrition suppliments and we would make her drink milk to get her calcium and let her eat pretty much whatever she wanted to get the calories, but she was always within reason. Since treatment ended a year ago, she’s begun to HATE milk, so I’m concerned about her calcium in take and her future weight.
    I was thin too until about 3rd grade, then started gaining weight and have been overweight since, am now about 30 pounds overweight. I really want to change our whold family’s eating habits and don’t really know where to start. Is the schedule a good place to begin? Do you have recommendations for dinner and bedtimes for an 8 year old? What resources would you recommend for making sure she’s getting the nutrition she needs? Sorry about the length of this, it’s been on my mind lately, Kelly

    • Bryan Vartabedian says:

      Kelly – Thanks for commenting. Unfortunately I can’t offer medical advice specific to your child’s case. I would highly recommend that you visit with one of our Texas Children’s Hospital Registered Dieticians for a thorough dietary and growth assessment. With that said, it’s important to understand that we have many children unable to drink milk who grow and thrive beautifully. Keep in mind that milk is nothing other than a fancy vehicle for calories, calcium and protein. And we can get those nutritional components into a child through other sources.

      So there are details that need to be sorted out. We have dieticians at Texas Children’s Health Centers all around Houston. If you have any difficulties just call my office a 936-321-0808 and we’ll try to get you squared away.

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