If “I’m hungry!” or “I want a snack!” is a constant refrain in your house, you may find yourself wondering: is my child hungry, or just bored?
In reality, there are an enormous number of reasons a child could be eating (or wanting to eat) more than usual and why your child constantly asks for snacks, and it’s not always easy to determine why.
If your child is frequently rummaging in the fridge or requesting snacks, there are a few methods you can use to get to the root of the behavior and prevent childhood obesity.
#1. Ask the child
Clearly, this is the most straightforward method when your child constantly asks for snacks.
Simply asking a child whether they’re bored, sad, or just hungry may not yield the truth, especially if the child is embarrassed by the answer.
However, it is still a helpful question to ask, and can help guide the child to asses their true degree of hunger.
Ask the question in a curious and even tone, rather than making an accusation that may make the child feel ashamed or defensive.
Say, for example, “Are you hungry, or just looking for something to do? Sometimes I want to eat when I’m bored. Can I suggest an activity?”
#2. Consider any recent emotional or social developments
While infants rarely eat outside of true physiological need, if an older child constantly asks for snacks, they may have developed the habit of self-soothing with food.
Consider any recent developments in your child’s social or emotional world: did they recently have a falling out with a friend, or are they feeling more anxious at school then usual?
If so, the child may be using food to self soothe or to numb an uncomfortable emotion.
#3. Try the snack test
In some ways, children are just like the rest of us, and they like to eat!
If you consistently stock your house with high incentive snacks like chips, crackers, or other sweet or salty treats (even “healthier” varieties), your child may be eating simply for the pleasurable experience.
If you find your child eating more than usual, try the “snack test”: offer a fruit or a vegetable only.
In instances of true physiological hunger, pickiness isn’t as likely to be a large factor in a child’s food choice.
If he or she turns it down and requests a different item, then they aren’t hungry enough for a snack, and are just wanting a specific item or items.
#4. Consider the child’s weight
While short term increases in food consumption likely won’t cause an issue with body weight, consistent weight gain is evidence that a child is consuming outside of their true physiological need.
If you’re child’s weight has begun to exceed its expected rate of gain, speak to your child’s pediatrician or consult a nutrition specialist to help reduce the risk of long term overweight, obesity, and/or emotional repercussions of excess weight.
Morgan Medeiros is a certified nutritionist, holding a both a Bachelor and Master’s Degree in Clinical Nutrition. Morgan completed her undergraduate education at Central Washington University, and her graduate education at Northeastern University. During her time as a graduate student, Morgan focused her area of expertise in health education, weight management, and behavioral change. Morgan has experience working in areas of nutritional neuroscience and disease prevention, obesity prevention, and weight loss. Morgan also works in areas of nutritional analysis and menu labeling for restaurants, where she is able to creatively bridge her interest in food culture and health education. In her free time, Morgan enjoys traveling, reading, writing, running, and spending time with her family and friends (including- most importantly- her dog, Clyde).