Monitoring mealtime behaviors

Parents and childcare providers unknowingly mold children’s eating habits by monitoring, restricting and even pressuring children to eat.

Since the 1960s, the prevalence of overweight children has doubled. It is now more important than ever to identify specific environmental stimuli that decrease the ability to respond to internal satiety cues.

Young children are generally highly responsive to energy intake, hunger and satiety signals. As children age, the accuracy of energy compensation deteriorates. Feeding strategies such as portion size and rewards may lead to overeating and loss of energy regulation.

It is important to take a look at the child’s mealtime surroundings.

Is the environment pleasant and conducive to eating?

Children are more likely to eat when the atmosphere around them is clean, quiet and calm. They will chew and digest more efficiently when they are not distracted by activities going on around them. Toys at the table or trying to watch television decrease interest in food. They tend to gulp food down without chewing because the meal is not their primary activity.

Youngsters need their table, chair and eating utensils to be appropriately sized to prevent frustration in not being able to manage their needs. Planning table settings to reflect the season, a holiday or a special activity creates interest and makes the eating experiences more pleasurable.

New experiences make children more willing to try a new food. A picnic or a tailgate party adds variety to meals. It might be a good idea to set aside one day a week as “try a new food day.”

Another way to introduce something new is to connect meals to learning activities. An example would be serving “b” foods as the child learns about the letter “b.” They could try breads, bananas or berries. Children respond well to pretend activities. Pretending they are trying other cultures’ foods will promote better eating habits.

Young children naturally eat to fill hunger and satiety levels. As children get older their self-control is often overriden by outside influences. Since children have not developed a sense of limits, it is important for adults to model good eating behaviors. Children notice if adults are reluctant to try new foods.

Jennifer Dutton is a regional agent with the Alabama Cooperative Extension System. She can be reached by e-mail at JLD0021@auburn.edu.