Originally posted on the Texas Children’s Blog. Visit Them on Twitter and Facebook

By: Bryan Vartabedian, Gastroenterologist

I’m always amazed at the structured discipline that parents hold themselves to when getting their kids ready for bed. Almost on the clock: bath, story, bed. And for good reason. Any parent worth their salt knows that successful sleep patterns begin with the repetition of a nightly routine. Routines tell children what’s about to happen and what’s expected of them. Rituals create order for children.

But when it comes to eating, structure seems to go right out the window. So often when children are hungry, they expect snacks. When they’re fidgety at the pediatrician’s office, out come the Goldfish. Often the limited diets and poor habits that children develop are our doing.

The foundation of healthy feeding is a tight routine. While I’m a strong advocate of feeding on demand in early infancy, it doesn’t work for toddlers. Why?

  • Feeding on demand promotes grazing. This creates havoc with our digestive hormones and stunts the appetite. Just like your mother used to tell you, if you fill up on junk, you won’t eat your dinner.
  • Feeding on demand puts feeding on their terms. While children do have to assume responsibility for what they eat, they lack the judgment to do this entirely on their own. You set the boundaries of what’s appropriate and leave the rest to them.
  • Feeding on demand sends the wrong message about food. Children must learn that the impulse to eat will not always be fulfilled. Older children are more apt to use food to fulfill other impulses other than hunger and the need to nourish.

After the first year, plan on three squares a day, two snacks, and watch out for that appetite-numbing wander cup with milk and juice.

By the way, my weakness is a handful of cashews during the hour before dinner. Of course when I grab ’em the kids are in tow looking for their own. So as we eat, so shall they feed!