There’s a bal­ance be­tween schoolkids eat­ing enough for their en­ergy needs and learn­ing to recog­nise hunger.

There’s a bal­ance be­tween schoolkids eat­ing enough for their en­ergy needs and learn­ing to recog­nise hunger.

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Jen­nifer Bowden


In many pri­mary schools, kids seem to be eat­ing all day, ap­par­ently to help im­prove their be­hav­iour. They have carb snacks at the start of the school day, morn­ing tea, a “brain feed” later in the morn­ing, then lunch at about mid­day. Given that child­hood obe­sity is such a prob­lem, is there any ev­i­dence of the ben­e­fits of all this snack­ing?


here is the line be­tween rais­ing happy, healthy kids and con­trol­ling their be­hav­iour to such an ex­tent that we ac­tu­ally harm their de­vel­op­ment and well-be­ing? When it comes to chil­dren and food – and ef­forts to com­bat the obe­sity epi­demic – that line is eas­ily crossed. Chil­dren are born as in­tu­itive eaters – they know when to eat and when to stop. A new­born in­fant, for ex­am­ple, will cry un­til some­one feeds it, and tod­dlers will avoid even the most skil­ful ma­noeu­vring of a spoon-mas­querad­ing-as-a-plane if they’re full and don’t want to eat.

When chil­dren are left to re­spond to their own hunger and full­ness cues, we’re teach­ing them to trust their bodies, and, in the process, fol­low­ing ex­pert guide­lines such as those of the World Health Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

How­ever, chil­dren have high en­ergy needs. A five-year-old boy, for ex­am­ple, needs about dou­ble the en­ergy per kilo­gram of body weight as a 50-year-old man. So, young chil­dren need to eat a lot to fuel their growth, play and learn­ing time.

But kids have small stom­achs and are un­able to tuck away the large amount an adult might con­sume.

Nu­tri­tious, tasty snacks be­tween main meals are an ex­cel­lent way to help chil­dren get the en­ergy and nu­tri­ents they need. And with­out them, hunger can set in and cause wan­ing en­ergy lev­els, even sleepi­ness, dif­fi­culty fo­cus­ing and con­cen­trat­ing and ir­ri­tabil­ity. That’s not the frame of mind teach­ers want their young stu­dents to be in.

Hunger hin­ders learn­ing. Re­search has found that kids who ar­rive at school with­out break­fast have poorer aca­demic per­for­mance in the short­and long-term.

What should be avoided is day­long graz­ing. Snacks are ideally timed to en­sure there’s long enough be­fore the next meal that the child is hun­gry again. Hunger is pos­i­tive en­cour­age­ment for a child to eat a meal that pro­vides a good bal­ance of nu­tri­ents and en­joy­ment.

Ob­vi­ously, every­one is dif­fer­ent, and it de­pends on the snack, but a gap of at least 90 min­utes to two hours be­tween snacks and

meals is usu­ally about right.

Each school has its own snack and lunch-break sched­ule. But for young chil­dren, es­pe­cially those in their first year of school, it can be a long, hun­gry wait be­tween break­fast and the first of­fi­cial school snack break at 10.30am-11am. So, the “brain food” snack break in the first hour of school time is a great way to bridge the gap be­tween break­fast (prob­a­bly eaten at 7am-8am) and the school’s morn­ing snack break.

When we en­cour­age chil­dren to ig­nore their body’s cues – by telling them they can’t pos­si­bly be hun­gry when they’ve just had a big meal or snack, or that they need to fin­ish ev­ery­thing on their plate and not waste food, even if they’re full – we’re dam­ag­ing the trust they have in their body’s cues.

The job of par­ents and care­givers is to of­fer chil­dren a range of nu­tri­tious and fun foods to en­joy at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals, and al­low them to get used to the sen­sa­tions of hunger and full­ness and de­cide for them­selves which foods, and how much, they need to eat.

“Hunger is pos­i­tive en­cour­age­ment for a child to eat a tasty, bal­anced meal.”

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