Children are born with an innate sense of how much food they need to eat for their growth, development, and activity level. Children eat when they are hungry and stop eating when they are full. However, this intuitive eating can be disrupted by external influences.

For example, if well-meaning parents believe their child is growing too large and limit his food, then this child will instinctively want to eat as much as possible. He learns not to trust that enough food will be available when he needs it.

As another example, if well-meaning parents believe their chid is growing too slowly and force their child to eat, this child learns not to trust her own cues of fullness.

Another reason a child may be out of tune with her internal cues for hunger and fullness is if she has not been able to expect meals and snacks at a regular time. If a child can not rely on a predicable meal and snack schedule, the cues can become messed up. Again, I need to emphasize the importance of a regular schedule for children. This needs to be in place before you can expect a child to be able to listen to what his body is telling him about hunger and fullness.

If you think your child has lost some internal cues of self-regulation, use this scale to explain it to them. Even an adult who has spent most of her life without self-regulation can learn to tune back in to the cues her body is giving her!

In this scale, it’s best to stay within the green zone. In other words, you don’t want to wait so long to eat that you end up ravenous and you don’t want to eat so much that you stuffed to the max. In fact, one often leads to the other. When we are out of the green zone, it is much harder to control the amount of food we eat. Waiting until we are ravenously full often leads to stuffing our face! It’s almost as if our bodies go into a mini-starvation mode where they don’t believe that food will be available when needed and decides it needs to hoard it!

Traffic Light Hunger and Fullness Scale