From the first moment your newborn baby is placed in your arms, what they eat is one of your biggest concerns. Breast milk or formula? When should you wean? And what do you do if you have a picky eater who won’t eat anything you put in front of them? An issue that’s not often tackled is why your child is hungry all the time. While some kids might simply have a healthy appetite, an insatiable hunger could be a sign that there’s something else going on.
Here are five common reasons some kids are always hungry — and some expert tips for solving the problem.
They associate food with comfort
Emotional eating isn’t just an issue for adults — children often display this type of disordered eating behavior too. “Kids who are hungry all the time might turn to food for comfort when they’re anxious, stressed or upset,” Danelle Fisher, M.D., vice chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, tells SheKnows.
If you think your child might be eating for emotional reasons, this isn’t necessarily “bad,” but it can become an issue if eating is the only way they deal with their emotions, says the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Start by talking to your child to help you identify what feelings are behind their desire to eat: boredom, anxiety, confusion, loneliness, excitement and insecurity are some common ones. Suggest other things you and your child can do together instead of eating, like going for a walk if the issue is boredom, or playing a game if they’re using food to deal with loneliness.
According to a study led by University College London, published in the journal Pediatric Obesity in June 2018, the tendency for children to eat more or less when stressed and upset is mainly influenced by the home environment and not by genes. If this theory is true, it’s crucial that you set a good example for your kids by developing a healthy relationship with food. It’s there to nourish your body, not take away stress, sadness or loneliness.
They feel deprived
“Eating in the absence of hunger” is a phenomenon in the research world, and it tends to manifest in kids who are at higher weights and more likely to be restricted at mealtimes. If a child isn’t allowed to have seconds or eat sweets, they may obsess about food and eat more whenever it’s available. “Some people have food insecurities,” Gina Posner, M.D., pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, CA, tells SheKnows. ”This happens when food isn’t always available. As a result, when it is available, they may gulp down as much food as possible. This can lead to overeating even when there isn’t food insecurity anymore.”
A regular routine of eating as a family at the table is important, as is letting kids decide when they are done eating. Again, be aware of your own relationship with food — if you restrict your intake then over-indulge on treats, there’s a good chance your kids will follow in your footsteps.
They’re not getting enough filling foods
It’s simple: if you’re not giving your child the right kind of foods at mealtimes, they won’t feel full — and are more likely to ask for more food half an hour after leaving the dinner table. “Kids require a lot of nutrients for proper growth, but luckily it doesn’t have to be complicated or overly controlled,” registered dietitian nutritionist April Burns tells SheKnows. “It’s important to include foods from all food groups including whole grains, fruits, vegetables, lean proteins and dairy products like milk, cheese, and yogurt.” And don’t forget healthy fats like nuts, seeds, avocados, fish and olives. If you think your kid will never eat avocados or olives, the key is to start offering whole foods early on, and maintain exposure to those foods. “If your child rejects a food just keep offering it to them,” says Burns. “Research shows us kids will likely learn those foods are part of a healthy diet and will start being more adventurous with their food choices.”
You might have to get a little creative to ensure your kids eat their veggies. “You’d be surprised what a little flavor can do for a kid’s interest in crunching on broccoli,” registered dietitian nutritionist Rebecca Scritchfield tells SheKnows. She suggests serving veg with ranch dressing, sesame soy dressing, vegetable dip or guacamole.
They’re not getting foods they enjoy
If your kids doesn’t like the foods you give them at mealtimes, they’re likely to take a few bites, say they’re full, then come back to you an hour later asking for snacks.
Your kid can still get the foods they crave the most — like chocolate — but you want to try to aim for better balance. “Use your power of suggestion and say, ‘You know what, I can give you some yogurt with chocolate chips in it or a banana with peanut butter and a few chocolate chips. Which one sounds good?'” suggests Scritchfield.
When you plan meals, make sure there are at least a couple of things your child is likely to eat. Better yet, ramp up the fun factor and serve meals family-style, in bowls passed around, letting little ones pick and choose. “Family style dining helps kids learn what they want and how to portion foods,” registered dietitian nutritionist Shana Spence tells SheKnows. She also recommends getting your kids to help you prepare foods, and go grocery shopping. “The exposure alone will encourage them,” she says. “Yes, kids are going to be picky eaters. Keep introducing the foods to them. If they say no, encourage them to at least put it on their plate. The key is to encourage but not enforce.”
They’re going through a growth spurt
It’s not only babies who go through growth spurts and want the boob or the bottle all day – it happens to all kids. “When kids are going through a growth spurt, they need more calories and they get super hungry,” says Posner. “They’ll eat everything in the house, which is why it is important to only have healthy foods available, because they will gravitate towards the higher calorie unhealthy stuff too.”
For this one, there’s no magic fix. Simply continue to feed your kids on a routine, let them regulate their intake, provide filling, nutritious, varied foods — and watch them grow!
If you’ve exhausted all possibilities and your child continues to be hungry all the time, it’s time to get some professional advice and support. Fisher advises consulting your pediatrician to rule out a medical condition, and working with a nutritionist to figure out the right course of treatment.
A version of this story was published March 2019.