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Children Learn to Respond to Hunger Cues When Allowed to Serve Themselves

Children Eating at SchoolChildren in daycare settings who are allowed to pass food bowls around the table and serve themselves better learn to recognize when they are full compared to children whose food is pre-plated by an adult, says a new study from researchers at the University of Illinois Child Development Laboratory as published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

Researchers led by Brent McBride, director of the U of I Child Development Laboratory, recently studied the feeding practices of 2- to 5-year-old children in 118 daycare centers.

According to the study, children who are allowed to serve themselves from bowls passed around a family-style table are better able to recognize when their bodies are full. Children who are served pre-plated portions are less able to recognize their own satiety.

Says McBride of the findings:

“Family-style meals give kids a chance to learn about things like portion size and food preferences. When foods are pre-plated, children never develop the ability to read their body’s hunger cues. They don’t learn to say, okay, this is an appropriate portion size for me.”

The researchers also discovered the Head Start centers are more likely to follow the nutritional benchmarks outlined by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. The most recent Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics benchmarks were issued in 2011 to combat the problem of child obesity. One of the benchmarks is to allow children to serve themselves.

Adds Dipti A. Dev, a U of I graduate student in nutritional sciences, “The academy also recommends that providers eat with children so they can model healthy behaviors, which Head Start staff are required to do.”

Childcare providers are also asked not to ask children to eat “just one more bite” before offering another activity. Providers should additionally ask whether children are full, not whether children are done.

The U of I study is the first to determine whether childcare providers are adhering to the guidelines for feeding practices from Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Although most providers did promote healthy feeding by serving nutritious foods and not pressuring children to eat or restricting them from eating, Head Start facilities stood out as having the best policies and feeding practices.

One reason that childcare providers cite for not providing family-style meals is the mess and waste. Explains McBride:

“Teachers who don’t do family-style meals have all these reasons that they don’t: there’s too much waste, it’s messy, young kids don’t have the developmental skills – the fine motor control – to do that.

“But Head Start teachers were telling us ways you could help develop those fine motor skills: for instance, using scoops in the sandbox or pouring water in the water table.

“When you first do easel painting with a two-year-old, it’s really messy because they don’t have fine motor control, but you still do it even though it’s messy. The same thing is true for family-style meal service. It may be messy at first until they develop the appropriate skills and learn to pour the right way or hold the cup as they’re pouring. It’s a developmental progression.”

Forcing children to eat when not hungry or when already full can lead to poor eating habits, which in turn can lead to obesity. Allowing children to determine when they are full is the best way to help children learn healthy eating habits.

Summarizes Dev, “If a child doesn’t eat at one meal, he’ll compensate for it over a 24-hour period. Making kids eat when they’re not hungry is probably the worst thing you can do. It teaches them not to pay attention to their body’s signals.”

References

Day-care children learn to respond to hunger cues when allowed to pass bowls family-style: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/releases/271197.php
Passing bowls family-style teaches day-care kids to respond to hunger cues, fights obesity: http://news.aces.illinois.edu/news/passing-bowls-family-style-teaches-day-care-kids-respond-hunger-cues-fights-obesity

Image Credits

Children Eating at School: http://www.freeimages.com/photo/75037

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