Belly Hungry versus Mouth Hungry
Ashley Bade RD, LDN, CNSD
Children come with varying appetites; there are the big eaters that seem to be bottomless pits and the little eaters with small bites throughout the day. While it’s important to honor your child’s appetite, sometimes with children that are frequently seeking food it may be a sign of non-hunger eating.
Non-hunger eating can stem from a variety of sources such as boredom, emotional coping or just the enjoyment of the taste of food. At birth, we are all innately given the ability to regulate our intake based on hunger and fullness ques. This however can quickly go away as our relationship with food is formed in our younger years.
For children that may be exhibiting non-hunger eating, I like to introduce the idea of “belly hungry” versus “mouth hungry”. Belly hungry, I describe, is when your belly is growling and has space for food. Mouth hungry on the other hand is when our mouth wants to have a good taste in it, but there isn’t space in our belly. This is a simple concept that parents can use to defer non-hunger eating by little ones.
If you feel your child may be exhibiting non-hunger eating; here are a few tips for avoiding over-eating while nurturing a healthy relationship with food.
• Introduce the concept of belly hungry and mouth hungry to your child. Give examples of times when you personally feel belly hungry versus mouth hungry periodically and talk to them about what you do when you are mouth hungry. Bringing up personal examples from time-to-time can help to role model healthy eating behaviors to your child.
• The kitchen/pantry should not be a self-service operation for younger kiddos- try to keep your child on a meal and snack schedule with roughly 2 ½ to 3 hours in between food offerings. This can generate enough appetite to encourage good intake at the balanced meals and snacks you provide without leading to an overly hungry child.
• If your child is asking for food in between planned meals and snacks and you suspect it is non-hunger eating, ask your child if he is belly hungry or mouth hungry. If the answer is belly hungry- it may be best to offer a choice between a fruit and vegetable option. If he refuses the options given and requests a typical favorite food such as chips or cookies, keep with the options you offered and he will choose one if belly hungry.
• If your child is mouth hungry- have a plan of five different activities he can do instead of eating. With some of my patients it has been helpful if I have them come up with a list themselves with common activities like coloring, playing with a favorite toy or arts & crafts time on the list. By being able to offer a list of alternatives, you can quickly find something enjoyable for your child to pass the time with until it’s time for the next meal or snack when true belly hunger is likely to be there.