Slow Eaters, Distracted Eaters, and Paces in Between
In a previous Nutrition Bites video, we discussed division of responsibility at mealtimes. That is: what is a parent responsible for in terms of providing a meal and setting boundaries, and what should the child control. In some of our discussions, we heard some additional questions from parents whose children take a very long time to eat, as well as parents whose kids couldn’t sit still. So let’s talk about this idea of pacing.
Pacing during meals can usually tell us more about the child than how much they do or don’t like the food on the table. Sometimes, the speed of eating can point to other needs in a child’s life. And, just like the classic fable of the tortoise and the hare, there isn’t really a right or wrong, so long as the pace works for you and you make it there in the end 🙂
Tortoises are slow and steady
We’ve heard from some parents that their child(ren) stay at the table forever. Maybe they play with their food more than usual, maybe they poke and prod it around the plate. In any case, the ‘tortoise’ mark starts to hit around 30 minutes, but some parents have said their children can take 60 minutes or more.
If this becomes a trend (and not a one-time occurrence), it can often point to an underlying cause. Luckily, causes typically come with solutions:
- Mealtime might be your child’s primary (or only) time of undivided attention throughout the day. If you think this might be the case, build in some extra one-on-one time daily, and monitor their eating for a couple of weeks to see if the pace picks up.
- Mealtime can create a pressure or anxiety. This can stem from nutritional needs, language used around mealtime (such as ‘hurry up, finish your meal’), or other tension unrelated to the meal itself. When most kids feel pressure, they react in some way (if you talk about this with your child, you could point out the presence of Newton’s Third Law!). If you sense anxiety as a cause of slow-eating, slow down too and reevaluate. Ensure the time and space for meals are calm, social, and enjoyable. Focus on the atmosphere beyond the food itself.
- Sometimes, children are just distracted. If there are toys and games present, including phones, remove them. Create a bubble that is dedicated to family time, conversations, and bonding. If parents are distracted and on their phones, children can pick up on this modeled behavior.
- In some cases, a child may have a small worry about their next meal. Depending on how your household handles snacking, they may be prolonging dinner to ensure they won’t go to bed hungry. If this seems like the case, you can discuss a healthy pre-bedtime snack. Like a negotiation, it will set an expectation for your child (and you can provide it shortly after dinner, within the hour even, so it’s not too close to their actual bedtime).
There is no magical formula to uncover the causes of slow-eating. The truth is, for kids and adults alike, some eaters are slower than others. Perhaps it’s the joy of eating and savoring flavors. Before trying to make any drastic changes, evaluate whether the behavior is truly making a detrimental impact, and go from there.
Hares are lightning-fast
Sometimes, it feels like you just sat down at the table when your child announces that they are already full. Huh?? How??
Speedy eaters rarely make it longer than 10 (or even 5) minutes before they are ready to dash on. But like the hare in the story, sometimes the speed can cause them problems later on. For example, if they don’t take in sufficient nutrition at mealtimes, it can impact their energy and even their growth.
Like the steady-tortoise, lightning-fast hares at the dinner-table usually have additional behaviors or root causes that can be addressed:
- Sometimes it comes down to food preference. Whether they love it and gobble it up, or hate it and don’t eat very much, try serving a variety of foods. This will allow you to see if the speedy-eating is only for certain foods. If it is an issue of picky preferences, it can help to have a fall-back food (something your child likes but isn’t wildly exciting, like cottage cheese or bread with cheese. If it’s too exciting, they will default to it more regularly).
- Maybe they really aren’t hungry. Monitor your child’s snacking between meals to see if it impacts their speed and quantity at dinner. Meals are best when we show up hungry, but not famished.
- Pressure or anxiety can fill a belly quicker than food. If your child feels pressured, they may claim to be full sooner, either to please you or to get out of the situation. Just like for tortoises, it’s important to create a calm, enjoyable family time. Again, atmosphere is critical, sometimes more than food.
- They’re on the go. Do they have a new game, a favorite tv show, or something else they can’t wait to get back to? If your child struggles to stay at the table for too long (because they are bored or anxious to get on to the next thing), try limited electronic media after meals for at least 30 minutes. This will create a bubble of space. Even quiet activities like books, arts and crafts, or quiet toys can be introduced to the table if you want to engage kids, but nothing beats conversation, either!
In some cases, your child has eaten enough already and truly are satisfied. In 10 minutes, they may have consumed the nutrients they need. If you’ve ruled out the worrisome causes but your child is still eating fast, trust their appetite.
Who wins the race?
Trick question! We know mealtimes are not a race. There are no prizes, just healthy, growing bodies! No matter which type of eater your child is, or if they are different each day, the real joy and responsibility of the parent is to create the atmosphere and quality time. From what you offer, it is your child’s responsibility to decide what to eat, and how much.
When in doubt, don’t assume. Mealtimes are the ideal times to have conversations and open up new doors. The point no one makes about the Tortoise & The Hare is that both of them get there in the end; it was the journey that mattered.