As a parent, it can feel like you're trapped in a constant cycle of make meal...clean up...make snack...clean up...make meal...repeat forever. Some of that's to be expected when you've got kids at home who are eating three meals and one to two snacks a day. But for some parents, the requests for food seem like they never end. One of the concerns I hear from parents is that their kids always seem hungry no matter what they do. This can be especially hard for parents who are worried about their child's weight because of the child's current BMI or because of a family history of overweight or obesity.
If there's been a big change in your child's appetite (either up or down), it's worth checking in with your child's pediatrician to make sure everything is okay. But assuming everything's normal, there are a few common culprits that could be at the root of your child's seemingly bottomless pit:
1. His meals and snacks aren't filling.
A lot of common "kid food"—think fish-shaped crackers, gummy fruit snacks, and sugary granola bars—provide calories but aren't particularly satisfying. Ditto for foods made with refined flour like white bread and pastries. That means that even right after eating them, your child may still be hungry. Kids who don't eat fruits and vegetables, which are full of hunger-busting fiber and fluid, may also find themselves less than satisfied.
What to do: Be sure meals include filling foods like fiber-rich whole grains, protein, and fruits and vegetables. Same goes for snacks. It's okay to have empty-calorie foods like pretzels or white crackers sometimes, but the majority of snacks should be more like "meal foods" that contain filling nutrients. Here are five snacks that keep kids fuller longer.
2. She's having a growth spurt.
Kids' appetites fluctuate from year to year and even day to day. (Toddlers and preschoolers are notorious for eating very little one day and loads of food the next.) When children are hitting a growth spurt, there's a sudden uptick in appetite that may seem out of character—and even hard to satisfy! It's totally normal.
What to do: Handle those surges in appetite with nourishing, satisfying food. Be sure your kitchen is stocked with healthy, easy options like nut butters, cheese, edamame, avocado, and whole grains so hungry kids are reaching for nutritious foods instead of chips or sweets.
3. He's eating out of boredom.
Or because she feels worried or nervous or excited. Emotional eating isn't just for grown-ups. "Sometimes for a kid 'I'm hungry' means I'm bored, upset, or just want to eat," says Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, author of How to Raise A Mindful Eater.
What to do: Start talking with your child about hunger, fullness, and the importance of listening to our bellies. This hunger scale may be helpful to use to help your child rate her hunger. If it turns out she's actually not very hungry, you can talk with her about what she's really feeling and try to help her, whether it's talking through a problem or finding a book or game if she's bored. Scheduled meals and snacks can also really help. "Having regular, structured meals at the table without grazing in between helps keep the child from learning to eat for non-food reasons," says Jacobsen.
4. She's thirsty.
It's not uncommon for thirst to be mistaken for hunger. Kids may get so caught up in playing that they forget to keep drinking, especially in hot weather.
What to do: Have a designated water bottle or cup for your child that can be refilled throughout the day. And explain to your kids that sometimes thirst can feel like hunger. If they're truly hungry, it's fine to serve a healthy snack, but it's smart to check in about thirst too.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.