When children and child-care providers sit around a table together at mealtime, passing bowls and serving themselves, children learn to recognise when they are full better than they do when food is pre-plated for them, reports a new University of Illinois study of feeding practices of two- to five-year-old children in 118 child-care centres.
“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,” said Brent McBride, director of the U of I Child Development Laboratory and lead author of the study.
The study found that Head Start centres were in significantly greater compliance with this and other Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics benchmarks than other centres surveyed, including participants in the USDA’s supplemental nutrition assistance program CACFP, and non-CACFP state-licensed centres.
The academy’s benchmarks were issued in 2011 to combat the problem of child obesity. One in four preschool children is overweight or obese, and more than 12 million preschoolers consume up to five meals or snacks daily at the nation’s child-care centres, McBride said.
“The academy also recommends that providers eat with children so they can model healthy behaviours, which Head Start staff are required to do,” said Dipti A. Dev, a U of I graduate student in nutritional sciences.
Teachers are also asked not to pressure children to take one or two more bites or finish a serving before another food or activity is offered, she said.
The researchers said that providers need to help children recognise their feelings of hunger and fullness.
“Instead of asking Are you done? teachers should ask children, Are you full? Or they should say, If you’re hungry, you can have some more, explained Dev, who is developing a packet of best feeding practices to share with providers.
“Asking the right questions can help children listen to their hunger and satiety signals,” she said.
If children don’t want to eat, teachers shouldn’t urge them to eat anyway out of concern that the kids may get hungry before the next meal or snack is served, he said.
“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,” Dev said.
(Source: University of Illinois)