We often think of the act of eating as what we do to survive, but survival really begins before there is food in front of us, with the urge to eat, to look in the pantry, to go to the fridge and get a drink, to ask ‘what’s for dinner?’
Sometimes we need to take a step back from the eating and think about hunger. Is a child feeling hungry? Do they know what hunger feels like and that food is what makes it better? Because hunger is our basic instinct behind eating, a child who doesn’t know what hunger feels like has no real motivation to eat, beyond that it is something he’s told he needs to do.
If for any reason a child’s sense of hunger has been altered or ignored, this is an important piece of the puzzle in helping them learn to eat. If a child has ever had a feeding tube with scheduled feedings, they may never have felt hungry between feeds or fully developed that sense of hunger as an infant. If a child has had issues with serious reflux that caused excessive vomiting as a child, they may have learned that food causes pain and learned to ignore their bodies’ natural hunger pangs as feelings that cause pain, rather than feelings that lead to comfortable fullness.
Because of medical advances in our culture, many children have a different start to life and feeding now than they did even 100 years ago. But even if this process of learning to listen to hunger has been arrested or altered, your child still has a body. They still have these feelings. They just need to be taught what they mean and learn that it’s safe to respond to them. If you think this is an issue in your family, I definitely recommend talking to your pediatrician and seeing about getting an evaluation with a feeding specialist (a speech language pathologist or occupational therapist) to help set up individual goals, eating plans and schedules that promote healthy development and recognition of hunger.
For all kids, talking about what the body feels helps them keep in touch with these important messages from their bodies. Before snacks or meals, draw attention to the fact that you’re eating to feed your body with sentences like, “My tummy feels hungry! I’m hungry for lunch! How does your tummy feel? Is your tummy hungry?” or “My throat feels dry. I’m thirsty and need water! Does your throat feel dry? Do you want some water?” Drawing children’s attention to the part of the body that feels hungry or thirsty is a great way to help them notice these feelings and then go back to check in with those parts of their bodies in the future to see if they’re hungry or thirsty.
You can also incorporate this language into food play. You could pretend you’re having a tea party or picnic and talk about whether the guests feel hungry or thirsty. You could use a ‘gingerbread man’ cookie cutter for almost any food and talk about how his body feels and what he needs to eat or drink to feel full and happy.
As always, have fun and happy food play!