Does your child skip meals? Mine certainly do from time to time. Whenever they are served a big snack at a playdate or get a treat at a birthday party, they are not that interested in the dinner offerings. It does not worry me that much, however, despite the disturbing titles of articles on the internet.
A worried mom sent me an email today after reading an article with the scary title “The dangers of meal skipping”: “My preschooler seems to regularly skip meals, especially dinner. We do follow the structure in meals and snacks and try not to serve anything in between but he still is uninterested in the evening meals most of the days. Are there any long-term nutritional risks to it? Does it mean that his chances of being overweight and diabetes are higher in the future?”
After looking at interpretations of the results of the study she refers to on different websites, I could see how alarming they may look, even if you just look at the title.
It is not only about meal skipping
After looking up this study named “Dietary factors associated with metabolic risk score in Finnish children aged 6–8 years: the PANIC study”, it became clear that it is not as simple as it may seem and skipping is only one out of a list of factors associated with the negative outcomes.
A couple of quotes from the internet articles and the study itself:
– “Children who skipped meals and ate more protein were more likely to have excess body fat. Uncontrolled eating behaviors, such as eating fast, emotional overeating, and lower satiety responsiveness were also associated with higher body adiposity.”
– “A higher consumption of sugary drinks, red meat and low-fat margarine and a lower consumption of vegetable oil are also related to a higher cardiometabolic risk…”
– “whether the inverse association of energy received from dinner with the risk of being overweight or obese is due to a regular family lifestyle, prepared food, eating with parents or the avoidance of low-quality snacks remains to be clariﬁed…”
– “The results of the present study suggest that promoting regular main meal eating pattern and healthy eating behaviors should be emphasized in the prevention of overweight among children.”
So it looks like meal skipping was just one of the factors associated with higher weight and other health risks in the future. And if you ask me, I would worry more about the mentioned above “..emotional overeating and a lower satiety responsiveness…”. and it also looks like it is not about getting a child to EAT every single meal, but rather establishing a “main meal eating pattern” aka mealtime structure.
Besides, association does not mean causation, as my research professor used to say all the time. A study that just observes certain behaviors in a group of people and then looks at health outcomes cannot attribute eating more broccoli, let’s say, to better hearing. In this case, children who skip meals may have other risks factors that predetermine their likelihood of being overweight, like eating more sugary snacks instead of dinners, overeating at other meals, or having parents who work three jobs and have no time to prepare dinner.
Meal skipping: Reasons and Solutions
What concerns me however is not the design of the study but a rather free interpretation of its results by the media. As it typically happens, a sensational title of an internet article obscures the true meaning of the findings of the study. As a result, parents are left wondering whether they should pressure their kids to eat a meal they are not hungry for in order to help them be healthier in the future.
As a mom and a dietitian, I may assure you skipping meals, especially dinner, is pretty normal for young children and especially toddlers and preschoolers who respond naturally to variations in appetite.
Here are just some of the reasons why dinner may be left uneaten:
– kids are just too tired to eat yet another meal at the end of the day
– they need fewer calories during a period of slower growth
– they may have been snacking all afternoon
– the dinner offerings too boring or challenging, compared to the far more enticing and easy to like bedtime snacks
– parents put lots of effort into getting their kids to eat a “good dinner” which results in pressure and, and even less eating.
So if your little one skips meals from time to time, do not worry. If meal skipping continues for weeks, try this:
1/Troubleshoot the meal structure to make sure no grazing during the day or snacking too close to meals takes place.
2/ Make sure to keep the mealtime environment pressure-free as negative emotions interfere with appetite.
3/ Serve meals family-style and include at least one food your little one eats in each meal so he is more willing to come to the table and has something to fill up on if everything else is too challenging.
4/ If you notice that”fun” foods are mostly assigned to snacks and “healthy” foods to meals, try switching things around. Maybe one day you can serve crackers with cheese and some fruit for dinner and a bowl of vegetable soup for an after-school snack. For more snack ideas, get my practical snack guide here.
And above all, do not worry about the dangers of this and the grave consequences of that touted by the media. If you are sticking to your feeding job description and allow your child do his part of eating, you are doing just great.