the effect of grazing and panhandling

I see it all the time. Parents armed with snack sacks of Cheerios, granola bars, and fruit leather, ready to dole them out little by little throughout the day.  These same parents then wonder why little Johnny has no interest in trying out the new “kid-friendly” recipe they found on Pinterest.

Children have small stomachs and can be quite active. Therefore, they do need to eat frequently and shouldn’t be left without food offered to them for more than 3-ish hours.  But they should experience some degree of hunger from time to time.  If you’re in the middle of dinner preparations and your child comes to you saying she’s hungry, by all means allow her to feel that hunger until the family sits down to eat the meal together.  If your kid is constantly snacking throughout the day and doesn’t want to try new foods at mealtime (or eat much of anything at all), that’s a more serious issue than some occasional hunger.  

Our bodies are designed to live with the ebb and flow of hunger and fullness. A complicated system of hormones and neurotransmitters are activated when we eat a meal, digest it, absorb the nutrients, and then store them away.  When our bodies need more energy, a whole other slew of hormones and neurotransmitters are activated to signal us to eat again.  When we graze all day a bunch of those wires are getting crossed.  There’s a popular myth out there that we should eat constantly to keep our metabolism going, but it’s just not physiologically true.

I use the term panhandling to describe times when your child comes up to you asking for something to eat. If you haven’t been following a meal and snack schedule then perhaps this is when you would have fed your child in the past. But once you have established a meal and snack schedule, it’s important to stick to it. There will be an adjustment period if your children are used to eating whenever they want. With time, they will come to trust and rely on the schedule.

Sticking to the schedule will help to keep your child in the green zone (see chart in lesson 13 of the workbook) of hunger and fullness. Essentially, it’s healthy to develop an appetite in between meals and leave the table feeling satisfied but not stuffed. If your child goes out of the green zone, this might be the time to make an exception and give them a small amount of food. But, in general, the schedule will keep them in the green.

Some people feel justified offering their children food when they ask because they give them healthy food. It’s awesome that these parents are providing nourishing food for their children but it doesn’t help the children to develop skills like delayed gratification which are needed for healthy eating. Healthy eating is so much more than just what we eat, it’s how and why too!

Children respond much better when we explain to them what is happening. When you implement your schedule, tell your children what to expect: that they will no longer be able to ask for food whenever they’d like but that food will be available at regular times throughout the day.

Note: water should be available to satisfy thirst all day long without any limits.



Each person is different. Some people can go longer than others between meals and snacks. If your child is accustomed to grazing all day, start with shorter intervals and work on spacing them out until you find the right zone for your child.


Current space between meals and snacks:


Plan for spacing them out longer (if needed):