We all do it sometimes. We grab a snack and plop down on the couch to watch a movie. Before we know it the whole thing is gone. We only meant to eat some of it, but downed it in one sitting. That is distracted eating at it’s finest. It exemplifies the problem of eating without intention. Not eating because of hunger. Not even eating healthy foods usually. Just eating because it’s there.
What happened to sitting around the table and eating as a family without the tv or cell phones?
What is distracted eating?
I see many kids who always have distracted eating. Parents often worry that they’re not eating enough, but they’re typically getting too many unhealthy foods.
Distracted eating is eating when your mind is elsewhere. It’s the opposite of intentional eating, where we enjoy our meal and make smart choices about what and how much we eat.
It occurs when kids are distracted by a television or video game while eating. When any of us eat in front of the screen, we don’t focus on what goes into our mouth.
Or when parents allow kids to carry food around the house all day and take a bite here and there.
It can happen when any of us eat because it’s there and we aren’t listening to our body’s hunger cues.
The youngest distracted eaters might fit into another category all together, but they certainly aren’t intentionally eating. These are the babies who parents “dream feed” – basically feed them while they’re sleeping.
This can be because parents think they don’t eat as much as they should when they’re awake. Or maybe parents want to get one more feed in before they go to bed so baby will let them sleep.
I know many parents rely on it, but I will never recommend it for many reasons.
- It can disrupt their normal sleep cycles if you feed during periods of deep sleep.
- Dream feeds also feed a baby who might not be hungry or need to eat. It’s hard to know when to stop.
- After the first 4-6 months most babies don’t need to eat at night, but they are trained to eat at that time.
- Once they get teeth it can increase the risk of cavities if they eat without brushing teeth before returning to sleep.
- There are also risks of choking, though if they’re being held, it won’t go unrecognized. A parent can use CPR techniques to help them.
As kids move into the toddler years, they often become picky with foods and eat small volumes. This is normal.
Parents need to offer healthy foods and feed small frequent meals. Think of snacks as mini meals so you will offer healthy foods – and no, goldfish crackers are not healthy foods. Young children tend to eat about six small meals a day. Each meal offer either a fruit or a vegetable and a protein to help ensure your child gets enough of these food groups daily.
Unfortunately, some parents solve the “problem” of kids not eating a lot at meal times by allowing them to carry around food all hours of the day. This might be cereal, crackers, milk, or whatever the favorite food of the week is.
This allows the child to snack all day, which means they’re never hungry, so they don’t eat at meal times. Parents will think it’s better than eating nothing, and even think that since it’s cereal or milk it’s healthy.
But it’s not.
Risks of constant snacking
- Snack foods are usually highly processed and have little nutrition.
- Constantly nibbling doesn’t allow the body to learn hunger cues.
- Nibbling throughout the day doesn’t allow saliva to clean teeth between feedings, which increases the risk of cavities.
- If kids drink excessive milk they are at risk of severe malnutrition. Parents argue that milk is healthy, but they are thinking of mother’s milk or formula for infants. Cow’s milk has protein, calcium, and other nutrients, but it is not a complete meal substitute. I have seen children need blood transfusions due to severe iron deficiency anemia from excessive milk intake. Blood transfusions. It can be that bad. Yes, your child might like milk. And he might refuse to eat at meal time. But if you keep giving milk he will never get hungry enough to eat the food offered.
Feed while watching tv
Other parents realize that kids will eat more if they feed the child, especially if the child is watching tv. This is wrong on many levels.
- Once kids are able to feed themselves, it is a great skill to use. They work on fine motor skills when self feeding.
- When offered healthy options, kids will eat when hungry and stop when full. When parents do the feeding, they keep pushing foods until the plate is empty. Many parents have an unrealistic expectation of how much food a child should eat and overfeed the child.
- If a child is watching tv while eating, the focus is on the screen, not the food. Again, the child then doesn’t listen to hunger and satiety cues.
Self feeding is an important skill.
I see several kids each year who will be going to full day school for the first time and parents worry that they won’t be able to eat lunch because they never self feed. Many of these kids are overweight because they’ve been overfed for years yet the parents often think the child doesn’t eat enough.
Beyond the first birthday, most toddlers should be able to self feed. Many infants can do so even earlier. They don’t need a lot of teeth to eat small pieces of foods. Of course hard, round, chewy foods should be avoided for all young children, but most foods can be safely given to young kids at the table.
Don’t wait until your child is school aged to realize they’re behind on this important skill!
Eating together as a family is one of the best things you can do to raise healthy and independent children. As long as you use the time wisely.
If families eat while watching television or playing on smart phones or tablets, no one is connecting during the meal. No one is really enjoying the food or the conversation.
There are many studies that show the more often families eat together the less likely kids will develop obesity, get depressed, do drugs, smoke, and consider suicide.
Kids who eat with their families are more likely to eat healthy foods, do well in school, delay having sex, and have stronger family ties.
Help stop the habit of mindless eating.
Encourage eating at the table as a family as much as possible.
Offer healthy food choices and let everyone decide how much of each thing to eat.
If you worry that your child isn’t eating adequately, talk to your pediatrician.
MyPlate offers portion sizes for children, tips on healthy foods, activities for kids to learn about nutrition, and more.
If you’re a Pinterest fan, check out my Nutritional Sites and Getting Kids to Eat Vegetables and Other Healthy Stuff
Nutrition.gov has several resources for healthy eating.
Stanford Introduction to Food and Health looks very interesting. I haven’t taken the free online course yet, but another pediatrician friend highly recommends it.