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Which feeding strategy is healthier for kids – grazing as they please, or structured meals? I get asked this a lot. Here’s what I’ve experienced across some twenty years in clinical practice with all ages of kids, from young infants up to twenty-five year old young men who are finishing their last growth spurts. This question goes not only for meals, but breastfeeding too, especially when infants are wrapping up that first year or so, and becoming very interested in eating what they see you or their siblings eat.

But here’s the thing: The question you really need to start with is, what is best for you?

You may already know that supplying a steady stream of snacks and mini-meals isn’t nourishing for kids, and it’s a lot of work. Are you up for that? How about if you have three kids with different food allergies, not to mention different activities in different directions all day long? Or if your spouse doesn’t “believe” in all the effort you make to feed everybody, wants their own special favorites, and leaves it all on your shoulders? Mix in work schedules and budget constraints for special foods, and this becomes a fail, fast – one that I have witnessed many times in families reaching out for my help.

Usually, kids in these scenarios aren’t thriving. They’re often underweight, cranky, manipulative, poor sleepers, and picky eaters. And the chef-parent is at wits’ end. If you can’t keep up this workload, or if you plain just hate doing it, then it’s simple: Stop. Your happiness matters, period. And, happiness rubs off on your kids. And and, your kids will be healthier with discreet meal schedules, versus growing up on the non-stop graze.

As exhausting as feeding a grazer can be, it’s an easy trap to fall into. There are so many ready-to-eat packaged foods now for toddlers and children, that just handing over that pouch of organic veggie goo, paleo power bar, yogurt tube, or cup of snack crackers when you know your child probably isn’t eating enough is too tempting. But giving in to grazing has problems:

  • It may worsen small intestine bacterial overgrowth (SIBO) or small intestine fungal overgrowth (SIFO), a frequent cause of picky eating, weak appetite, and poor growth and gain for toddlers in my practice. Brief periods of day time fasting help keep this under control. Toddlers can manage two to three hour stretches between meals or snacks; school age kid, up to four hours or so.
  • Missing those short fasts throughout the day prevents an important thing called the “migrating motor complex“. This is what our GI tracts do between meals, when we’re on empty. It’s a housekeeping function that literally acts like a mini-cleanse broom, sweeping the intestine, and making it hard for lousy SIBO or SIFO microbial garbage to set up house.
  • When the body is fasted, the muscles in the small intestine make a wave of forward motion. This cleansing wave keeps intestinal contents from getting stuck – which is better for that constipation scenario you may be dealing with (read my blog on how to get off Miralax if that’s your kid). Eating too often abruptly ends this task.
  • Grazing can leave toddlers and kids hungry in the middle of the night, causing them to sleep poorly, wake up tired, or cry for a feeding when they’re old enough to sleep through – if they get the food they need during the day.

Some other points to consider

  • Eating is self-care. Kids learn good self care from parents who model health and happiness habits. If you’re miserable dealing with food and preparing meals, your kids will adopt a view of food as a burdensome annoyance too. Don’t expect them to lead the way here or make it easy for you – that’s your job.
  • Perhaps your toddlers (or kids) are good at grabbing what they want to eat, when they want. How independent is that, right? And maybe that makes your day easier. But, they’re toddlers. They are still dependent on adults to make wise decisions about what foods are good, and when. Left to their own devices, they’ll mostly eat what’s familiar, and not explore new foods that they may need, as they grow so rapidly.
  • Up until just a few years ago, there were none of these packaged foods parents now find so irresistible: The squeezable pouches of yogurt, fruit, and veggies; the packages full of crunchy snacks designed to be held by toddler hands; the endless variety of power bars, paleo bars, protein bars, and snack bars; the mini cups of chia pudding or vegan spreadable cheese or hummus; the gummy snacks that are fruit-like, sort of. All of this has been created for one reason: You buy it. It’s profitable. Kids definitely don’t need any of this stuff to be healthy, but if a bit of it in the mix makes life easier, enjoy – just don’t make it your only food strategy.
  • Learning to respond to hunger and fullness healthfully only happens when kids actually experience these things.

Avoid These Sure-To-Fail Scenarios

Recently a mom asked for my help with the breakfast routine for her three kids. One child especially did not want to eat in the morning, then went off to school semi-fed, where he proceeded to have meltdowns.

“Tell me the sequence of what happens; what is the first thing he does when he gets up?” I asked.

She explained that this one of her brood would get up, and immediately settle into Lego play before breakfast, which he would vehemently oppose leaving behind for food. He’d attempt some eating in this disintegrated state of mind, fail, and go off to school blunted for hunger but not well fed.

First step: Lose the Legos. Morning on school days is self care time, not play time. It’s get-ready-for-your-day. It’s fuel-up and settle-down for the tasks ahead. Toys should be nowhere in sight. This may sound hard, given the absurdly ubiquitous nature of branding for toys on everything from pillowcases to toothbrushes (not to mention snack food!). But it’s a self care routine that must be learned. Kids will not become good planners when toys, snacks, and whatever else they desire is within reach at any moment.

Another very common fail I encounter is prolonging breastfeeding. Don’t get me wrong: We all know how amazing breastmilk is. But, as infants age out toward their second year, they need some solid food too. I have met countless moms afraid to wean, for a variety of reasons. It’s  misguided to think that breast milk will continue to be the solution as their babies become toddlers. Their kids sip sip sip. They want feedings at midnight, 2 AM and 5 AM even though they’re 13 months old. Fail. This is a kid who needs to start eating food.

Continuing to breast feed is fine – but it should not be the only or primary source of sustenance at this age.

Even if your youngster is doing great at 14 months on just breast milk, I’ll bet you haven’t had a full night’s sleep in a long time. No good. You need sleep. Baby needs food. Solid foods needed for the baby’s higher demands get displaced with constant sipping on breastmilk, which can stop being adequate to meet all of a baby’s needs by about age 10-12 months. This can vary with circumstances for the baby, so finding the fit for you and your baby is key. It might be different from someone else.

If your child is fiercely picky for just breast milk, sleeping fitfully, waking for feedings, and failing to progress with introducing foods after age 15-18 months, it’s time for some intervention and redirection –  call me for an appointment.

Ok, one more: Just like toddlers, older kids need guidance and modeling for healthy self care habits when it comes to food. Teens who skip breakfast, breeze through lunch with a power bar, chow hard at dinner, then eat big again at midnight are setting themselves up for a bunch of challenges for mood, energy, attention/focus, and sleep. If they’re struggling, and combative about food, let’s talk. Most teens I’ve worked with are relieved to be offered options that lift this burden and give them strategies they feel better with quickly. The trick may be hearing it from someone other than mom or dad.

Need help? Work with me to sort out what food your kids need, when, and how!