Training Kids to Tune Out External Cues, Tune in to Internal Ones

Aug 17, 2009 by

Stock girl looking in fridge

How do we humans know when it’s time to eat? Or how much to eat?

It starts well: in the beginning, our hunger perfectly regulates our eating.  A baby cries when she’s hungry and we feed her the optimal food—breast milk—or the best baby formula we can buy. It’s a simple as that.  Parents, who know best, feed the baby only those foods that will benefit her, and she learns to like them. So far, so good.

Getting civilized

It all becomes considerably more complicated as we grow up. In part, it’s a matter of becoming more civilized in our eating habits. Learning to follow some external cues to eating is beneficial to our health. If we learn to adapt to regular meal and snack times, we find ourselves becoming hungry at those times and not so much at others.

But we can go wrong when we learn to listen to the chaos of other external cues to eat.  In American society, a multitude of other forces pressure us to eat too much of all the wrong things.  Without good habits, we get in the find ourselves listening to all those siren calls to eat, and the still small voice of our healthy appetite is easily silenced.

Just following orders

Instead of listening to our bodies, we eat because it’s there.

For example, serving sizes of many foods ballooned in the 1980s, and so did the average body. We saw those supersize packs of fries and we unquestioningly accepted that as the “right amount.” We became conditioned to eating more, not because we were hungrier, but simply because manufacturers handed us bigger servings.

In the 2006 book Mindless Eating, author Brian Wansink confirms through numerous experiments this human tendency to fall into overeating like sleep walkers into a huge pit in the ground. We’re easy prey for junk food pushers, and we listen precious little to our tummies.  The average American is generally unaware of why he’s eating or how much he’s putting away, according to Wansink’s data.

Pitfalls to avoid

Some of the cues to mindless eating can be found in our own kitchens.  What inducements to eat are you unconsciously giving your kids (and yourself), regardless of actual hunger or mealtimes? Like the built-in incentive to “get your money’s worth” at an all-you-can-eat buffet, what reasons are we giving our kids to eat more than they need or really want?

Ellyn Satter, author of the excellent How to Get Your Kid to Eat…But Not Too Much recommends cutting down as much as possible on non-hunger related and non-meal time nudges toward eating.

· Avoid having a lot of food sitting around in view, which encourages consumption. I say we use this concept to good advantage: keep attractive fresh fruit sitting around at all times. There’s little danger of overdosing on it. I also push consumption of raw vegetables just by simply cutting them up (without comment) and setting them on the table before dinner (when they’re hungry) or during dinner, with or without a healthy homemade dip. The kids eat them somewhat mindlessly but I let it slide.

· Avoid having temptations like a candy dish or cookie jar sitting around, which naturally leads to eating the contents. If you’re going to enjoy a cookie, be deliberate about it. Don’t just eat it because it’s there, Satter advises.   I say, again, if you’re going to have things sitting around in view, make it the right things. If everything you serve is healthy, overeating is never really an issue.

· Resist eating in front of the TV.  Are you conditioning your kids to have a Pavlov’s dog response to sitting down in front of the TV? Eating whenever you watch a movie is bad enough, unless you watch one only rarely, but TV, with its endless ads, is an all out assault of junk food cues. Unless you scarcely watch TV, it is powerfully working against all efforts at healthy, normal eating.

· Limit opportunities to eat: only at the table, for example.

· Forbid other activities when eating, such as reading, watching TV or playing video games.

These suggestions are not tricks to getting kids to eat, Satter notes, but “techniques to encourage deliberate and attentive eating that is likely to be satisfying.”

Other posts on this subject:

“Eating Mindfully: How to keep kids from getting fat by turning on to better food”

“Strategies for Eating Mindlessly/Strategies for More Mindful Eating”

© Sacred Appetite / Anna Migeon / 17 August 2009 / All rights reserved

This post was featured on Food Renegade’s Fight Back Friday on Jan. 29, 2010