Anyone who’s had a child knows that food — how much, what kind, how often — can be a complicated issue. Dealing with kids’ appetites can be one of the most frustrating things about parenthood. There are those children who are super-finicky eaters who don’t seem to be taking in enough food and others who are bottomless pits. And while it’s true some kids do just have a healthy appetite, an insatiable hunger might be signaling something else is going on.
Here are five surprising reasons children say they are hungry — and easy fixes for the problem.
1. They are making food associations
If every time a child gets in the car, is upset or sits in front of the TV and claims to be hungry, it’s likely he is learning to eat for other reasons than hunger. Kids say they are hungry because they know how that pushes parents’ buttons — and it’s more likely to produce the food they want.
The fix: Parents are better off feeding kids on a flexible schedule in a designated place than feeding on demand. That means instead of eating in front of the tube or in the car, families eat together at the table at regular intervals. This helps children regulate food intake and will decrease the frequent requests for food.
2. They feel deprived
There’s a phenomenon in the research world called “eating in the absence of hunger.” It tends to occur in children at higher weights, who are more likely to be restricted at mealtime. For example, a child may not be allowed to have seconds or eat sweets, and this in turn makes him obsess about food, eating more when it’s available.
The fix: In addition to a regular routine of eating at the table, allow children to decide when they are done eating. Kids feeling deprived may eat more at first, but eventually they’ll settle down when they can get enough. Include balanced meals and sweets sensibly, while watching your own tendency to restrict followed by overeating, as studies show kids tend to model such eating habits.
3. A lack of filling foods
One mom came to me perplexed by how her young child could be hungry every hour. Once I saw what he was eating, I instantly knew he needed more fat. She was so focused on healthy foods like fruits and veggies that fat, a satisfying part of a diet and a macronutrient that kids need at higher levels, was missing. In other cases, too many processed foods fail to satisfy, keeping kids on the edge of hunger.
The fix: Providing a variety of food groups with carbohydrates, protein and fat are a great way to satisfy kids’ appetites. At main meals, provide three to five servings of food groups, such as tacos with lean meat, whole-wheat tortillas, beans, veggie toppings and guacamole. At snack time, provide at least two servings, which might be yogurt topped with nuts, cheese and fruit, or half a sandwich.
4. The table is void of food they enjoy
Little Joey hated dinnertime because there was nothing there that appealed to him. He would take his required bites and say he was “full,” only to come back an hour later asking for snacks.
The fix: Plan meals with the whole family in mind and make sure there is at least one (if not two) things a child is likely to eat. Better yet, serve meals family-style, in bowls passed around, letting little ones pick and choose. Unless it’s a planned bedtime nosh, nix the snacking after dinner.
5. They are going through a growth spurt
Sometimes a hungry child is just that: hungry. Children grow in spurts, meaning they don’t always eat the same amount each day. When they are growing, they will be hungrier than usual, asking for seconds and sometimes thirds, and waking up ready to eat.
The fix: The good news is that by feeding on a routine, letting children regulate their intake and providing filling foods with a mix of the familiar and unfamiliar, you will be able to tell it’s a growth spurt. Simply feed your child nutritious food with love and watch him grow.
Maryann Jacobsen is a registered dietitian and coauthor of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School.
A version of this article was originally published in September 2013.