Thirty years ago this summer, I embarked on a quest to find my perfect diet. I was 16 years old and had stopped getting taller when I was 12, but I’d continued gaining 10 pounds a year. Now that my weight had caught up with my height, I wanted to stabilize my weight in a healthy way. Reading 1980s teen magazines had made me well aware of the risks of eating disorders and crazy fad diets.
I learned a lot that summer about what my own body really needs vs. what I thought I was “supposed to” eat based on family habits, school nutrition lessons, and all those magazines. My diet still wasn’t perfect, but my weight stabilized, my energy levels were more consistent over the course of the day, and I started to understand that my individual needs aren’t necessarily identical to those of everyone else my age. (For example, not everyone needs to be gluten-free despite all the negative press gluten gets these days.)
Many of the specifics of “what to eat when” that I learned that summer still apply to me, but more importantly, I learned the value of paying attention to a few basic questions:
- Am I actually hungry, or do I “feel like eating” for some other reason? Eating only when hungry reduced my caloric intake without making me miserable.
- What kind of food does my body need now? This guided me to healthier choices and a more balanced diet–compared to grabbing whatever was convenient.
- How much is just right? By challenging myself to put everything I was going to eat on my plate at once, instead of taking seconds, I quickly learned the right portion sizes.
- Am I still hungry? I broke the habit of eating until I felt full. Instead, as soon as I finished eating my portion, I got up from the table and waited 15 minutes before considering any more food.
- How do I feel after eating this type of food? Some effects are noticeable right after eating, while others may take a day or two.
Three decades later, I’m a mother of two, and my family breaks some of the “food rules” we see in the media. None of us has ever been overweight, and we’re all in basically good health–in fact, the kids are amazingly healthy, hardly ever catching colds or anything! They’re tall, they do well in school, and they have plenty of energy. Breaking those food rules seems to be working for us!
Disclaimer: I’m not a doctor or nutritionist. My goal is not to convince you to eat any particular diet. I’m here to encourage you to eat mindfully, learn about your own body’s needs, and figure out how to meet those needs within the schedule of your own daily life. Your needs and schedule might be very different from mine. I hope to help you focus on what’s working for you and what needs to change for you instead of following anybody’s system of what we all “should” do.
Is There One Perfect Diet?
There might be a diet that’s perfect for me. But the more I see of people’s eating habits compared to their health and weight, the more I’m convinced that my perfect diet would not work for everyone. I seem to have a body that wants to be thin, is prone to low blood pressure, has healthy dental bacteria–and is vulnerable to migraines and various types of joint pain. Other bodies have different strengths and weaknesses.
Katie did a bunch of research on bioindividuality, explaining why a gluten-free diet isn’t healthier for everyone. Bioindividuality is the idea that each unique human being develops a specific balance of digestive bacteria, food sensitivities, and metabolic timing based on genetics, early diet, stress, exposure to toxins, medical conditions, and many other factors.
Although there are medical tests that can give you detailed information about your body, it’s also possible to learn a lot from paying attention! Keeping a diary of your food, mood, poop, and any other outcomes–stomachaches, dizziness, sores in your mouth, waking up starving at 2am–can teach you a lot about how your diet is or isn’t working for you.
The diet that resolves one person’s health problems may cause serious problems for another person! Check out Mary’s scary stories of her experiences with a gut-healing diet and drinking more water. The key is tuning in to your body so you can recognize what’s helping you and what’s hurting.
Even within a family, different people may need different things. Each child shares some of one parent’s genetic tendencies and some of the other’s, but her brother may have inherited a very different mix, and neither of them is just like either parent. The microbiome of bacteria in each person’s digestive tract is affected by so many factors that even identical twins sharing a bed might react differently to the same food.
Paying attention to your family members’ food experiences, too, and talking with them about how food affects them, will help you to work toward menus and meal schedules that keep everyone feeling their best! Sometimes this means compromising to reach an average that works well enough all around, and sometimes it means accepting that this one kid needs a high-protein snack at a time of day when you don’t feel like eating at all.
When to Eat and How Much: What Does Science Say?
My impression of what “they” say about how to eat came mostly from magazines, blogs, and conversation. In this section, I’m looking into recent scientific papers about meal timing and its effects on human health.
Three meals are better than two as a normal daily routine for adult women who are already at a healthy weight. Women who skipped lunch felt less satiated than those who had three meals, even though they consumed the same total amount of food in 24 hours. Fat oxidation was more consistent in three-meal eaters, and they “burned” more fat per day than women who ate less frequently.
However, this meta-analysis suggests that people tending toward obesity and/or insulin resistance may do better eating no more than three meals a day, maybe only two, if those are high-protein, low-carb meals not too far apart–no more than 12-14 hours of overnight fasting. This is one example of the “rule” being different for people with a certain type of metabolism than it is for other people. Look at the table in this article for the specific findings of 18 different research studies.
This huge study shows that women who are consistent about eating or skipping breakfast are more likely to maintain a healthy weight than women who eat breakfast some days but not others. The introduction of this article gives a very detailed explanation of how irregular eating patterns, as well as irregular sleep and light exposure, affect our metabolism. It’s interesting that “women who consumed breakfast every day had the highest caloric intake and best diet quality, whereas women who never consumed breakfast had the lowest caloric intake and worst diet quality, yet decreased risk of [becoming overweight] was evident in both exposure groups.” Calorie counts aren’t the whole story!
The American Heart Association reviewed research on irregular eating patterns and breakfast-skipping. They found that breakfast-eaters tend to have healthier hearts, but eating in any consistent pattern may be more important than the specifics of that pattern. If your body knows when to expect food, it can be prepared to digest efficiently, and that’s good for your heart as well as your stomach.
Overweight women with metabolic syndrome (glucose intolerance and high blood pressure) got healthier, lost weight, and felt less hungry when they ate a big breakfast and small dinner, while those who ate a small breakfast and big dinner didn’t fare as well. Apparently the 12th-century doctor and philosopher Maimonides was right when he said, “Eat like a king in the morning, a prince at noon, and a peasant at dinner.”
In a large sample of typical middle-aged people, eating many small meals in a day is associated with healthier cholesterol levels, compared to people who eat only one or two meals a day.
For older men, protein right after exercising is absorbed better and improves muscle strength more, compared to waiting 2 hours after exercise to eat the same food.
If anyone in your family has symptoms of food allergies, check out Mary’s article on how a rotation diet can help. Eating the same food day after day can turn a mild sensitivity into a serious allergy, but abstaining completely from that food also can worsen the allergy! Also, rotation makes it easier to observe the effects of specific foods on your body. Mary has great tips for making rotation simple!
The main thing I learned from this research is that most studies of diet are aimed at helping fat people get thinner and/or at getting abnormal levels of insulin, triglycerides, cholesterol, and blood pressure into a healthy range. Research findings often are reported as if they apply to everybody, but a lot of them come from studies of people with health problems that are known to have a strong effect on metabolic rhythms! I couldn’t find the kind of detail I wanted on meal timing for healthy people.
That takes us back to the idea of being mindful about what we eat and when and how it affects us.
What Are the Right Food Rules?
It’s great to have some rules to live by: They speed up your decision-making, especially when you’re planning meals in advance instead of thinking about what to eat right this minute. However, it’s important to use rules that fit your family instead of trying to follow every rule you hear. (That way lies madness! So many of the diet “experts” disagree with one another!)
Let’s look at some of the most popular food rules and how they play out in my family.
“Breakfast is the most important meal of the day.”
For me personally this seems to be true: If I don’t have food within one hour of awakening, it ruins my day! I get shaky and irritable, nothing I eat later feels really satisfying, and I often end up with a terrible headache. I’ll also have these problems if my breakfast is all simple carbs (like a cinnamon roll)–the feeling of having eaten breakfast lasts no more than 90 minutes, and then it drops me hard!
Some days I feel very hungry (stomach growling, dizzy) when I get out of bed, and then it’s best to eat at least a few bites of something with protein or fat, before getting into the shower. Otherwise I get so hungry that, by the time I’m dressed and in the kitchen, it’s hard to think straight and get breakfast together. If I want to sleep late on a Saturday, I need to make sure I have a snack after dinner on Friday, or I’ll run out of calories while asleep and wake feeling scary-starved already. When we stay in hotels that don’t have a free breakfast, I try to bring raisin bran bread or some type of hearty muffins so that I can eat as soon as I get up, instead of waiting for everyone to be ready to leave the room!
But the other members of my family aren’t so breakfast-dependent. They each have their own needs:
- My 5-year-old daughter Lydia expects breakfast, but she’s usually calm about it. She’ll putter around for a while before wandering into the kitchen–and even when we’re urging her to eat breakfast so she can get to school on time, she often just nibbles slowly.
- My partner Daniel doesn’t feel like eating for an hour or two after awakening. He’ll get around to it later. Now that he works from home, he typically takes Lydia to school, comes home and eats breakfast, and then starts working. When he was commuting to a job, he had to get up early enough to get dressed first and be ready for breakfast just before rushing out the door.
- My 14-year-old son Nicholas easily goes all morning without food. Even in the years he’s had sixth-period lunch, he’s done well in school and not felt hungry until just before lunchtime. On non-school days, he can sleep ridiculously late and still wait several more hours before eating anything!
You can imagine how I feel about Nicholas not eating breakfast: What kind of mother sends her kid to school without breakfast–I’ve got to make him eat!! Projecting my own feelings, I worry that he’ll faint from hunger on the way to school. Especially on test days, I’m often fluttering around saying, “Are you sure you wouldn’t like an egg?” But it’s like dressing warmly: He’s just a different person from me. He’s responding to his body’s cues, just like I am.
But! When I told him I was writing about this topic, he told me that sometime last year, he started eating the school breakfast! (Pittsburgh Public Schools’ meals are free for all students, so there wasn’t any expense for me to notice.) He’s been grabbing an egg sandwich on his way into school most days. I’m so relieved to know this, even though I have my doubts about the quality of school food–better than no food at all! And an egg sandwich is a wise, high-protein choice, especially for a teen who’s suddenly six feet tall and still growing.
Protein at breakfast is important for all of us. That’s one of the things I learned the summer I was 16: Including peanut butter, yogurt, or egg in my breakfast keeps me feeling full several hours longer than just cereal and milk, and I also stay more evenly alert throughout the morning instead of having jumpy moments and drowsy moments.
These are my favorite breakfasts:
- Easy Fresh Apple Yogurt or some other kind of fruit with little to no added sugar, a lot of plain yogurt, and a little low-sugar granola.
- Tomato Toast or, when tomatoes aren’t in season, leftover sautéed veggies on top of buttered toast with nutritional yeast flakes (a tasty source of protein and B vitamins).
- Optimal Oatmeal with nut butter. (For breakfast or snacks in the office, try DIY instant oatmeal!)
- Magic Breakfast Burrito (with egg) or a bean burrito using leftovers. We make Mexican-style beans for dinner pretty often, and I’ve found that eating beans for breakfast feels better than I thought it would. They go with coffee surprisingly well.
“Eat only at mealtimes–no snacking!”
A carefully chosen brunch can sustain me through 7 hours with some physical activity–for example, visiting an amusement park. But that’s a strategy for special occasions only. My everyday life works more smoothly if I eat at least every 5 hours while I’m awake. How do I know?
- My stomach growls and feels empty.
- I feel it in my head. It’s like a pocket of emptiness that (perceptually) occupies a certain place in my head. Sometimes I get a very specific idea of what food I need to “put in there” to feel better. Feeling hungry for an extended period often triggers a migraine.
- I’m like a cell phone or tablet with a rechargeable battery: Plug me in when I get down to 10%, and everything’s fine. If you let me drop into the single digits, I start dropping faster and flaking out until I’m non-functional. In other words, if I get too hungry, I’ll have trouble finding food and I’ll have to sit still with my feet up for a while (sometimes even after I’ve finished eating) to stop feeling dizzy.
- Getting enough Vitamin B-12 helps with this, but it’s not the whole story. My father and I both had this problem even in the 1980s when we were eating a lot of animal foods and fortified grain products. It’s just the kind of metabolism we have.
- It’s important not to eat too much sugar when hungry. My dad, my son, and I all experience “sugar shock”–shakiness, mild nausea, and frightened feelings–if we eat sugar on an empty stomach, without protein.
- My concentration and alertness are more consistent throughout the afternoon if I eat a medium-sized lunch and an afternoon snack. A big lunch puts me into a “food coma” for an hour or two before I feel able to work effectively.
- Running out of calories overnight disrupts my sleep. Sometimes I can get up and eat, but more often I have nightmares, periods of being semi-conscious and miserable, and a bad headache on awakening.
- Eating frequently improves my digestion. At times when I eat larger, less frequent meals, I have more abdominal discomfort before pooping, I’m more likely to get constipated, and I’m more likely to see incompletely digested food pass through.
That’s me. You might be different. Not everyone needs snacks, but some of us do. (I was amazed, reading the research about meal timing for diabetics, to see that everyone in that study observing people’s self-chosen eating habits went at least 13 hours without food overnight! It’s more like 8-11 hours for me.)
If you or a family member need snacks, plan for snacking so you’ll eat healthy snacks. For Daniel and me, whether working in an office or at home, it’s important to grab a quick bite when we feel hungry around 4pm. Otherwise, we don’t have the energy we need for the “picking up kids and making dinner” phase of the day, and we get tired and irritable. Sweets, especially those with no protein, are no substitute for food when we’re hungry and (especially for me) must not be taken into an empty stomach. So it’s important to be prepared with a healthy snack. When I’m working outside the home, I always have peanuts and raisins in my desk drawer.
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Oddly enough, my family doesn’t snack in some of the contexts where many people do. We don’t bring a snack to eat at the local playground. We don’t give the kids stuff to eat in the car when we’re driving around on a few errands. Instead, we make sure nobody’s hungry when it’s time to leave, and then we eat after getting home. The effort of packing food and carrying it around is reserved for outings that last several hours and overlap a meal/snack time, like going to a museum.
That said, I’ve learned to bring a snack when I take a kid to meet another mom and kid at a playground, because they will have a snack, and I don’t want them to feel they have to share or my kid to feel left out!
We rarely eat in front of the TV, and we don’t buy snacks in movie theaters. Going out for ice cream after a movie or performance is really more of a treat–we can focus on enjoying it instead of on watching the show! Eating in front of the screen, it’s too easy to keep on eating without considering whether you’re full.
“Family dinnertime is crucial.”
The evidence for sociodevelopmental benefits of eating dinner together keeps adding up! Kids who eat dinner with their families on a regular basis have better self-esteem, grades, and test scores; they have lower risk of eating disorders, obesity, depression, substance abuse, and teen pregnancy.
With my background in social science research, I have to point out that some of this is about lurking variables: Families who eat together also have other similarities (like more family-friendly careers and lower rates of parental dysfunction) that are driving the positive effects. However, gathering your whole family at a reliable time of day for a wholesome meal and conversation is a positive move likely to help everyone feel loved and nourished, almost regardless of what else is going on.
In my family, dinner is the meal that somebody cooks for everybody. Breakfast, lunch, and snacks often are more like, “What are you hungry for? Can you make it yourself?” and we typically eat leftovers or quick-to-fix foods at those times. Dinner is the meal we plan, the meal that involves more elaborate preparation of raw ingredients.
We do our best to maintain the expectation that all family members will come to the table for dinner and everyone will at least sample the food that’s been prepared. Okay, maybe you’re not so hungry tonight. Maybe you really need to get back to your desk to finish that homework. Maybe you’re just grabbing a quick bite before rushing off to a 7pm meeting. But sit down for a moment, say hi to everyone, grab at least a taste of this food while it’s hot and fresh, and have the basic “How was your day?” and “What’s happening tomorrow?” conversation. It’s important to family unity.
It’s crucial that adults set a good example. Unless you’re too sick to eat or you really have to be somewhere else at dinnertime this day, come to the table when dinner is ready, eat some of the food, and don’t go get yourself some other food until after dinnertime is over. If you really need to get back to gardening before sunset, or something, stay at the table at least 10 minutes and then excuse yourself politely. If you don’t like the food, behave the way you’d like your kids to behave when they don’t like what you cooked: Model respect for the chef’s feelings, taking a polite bite, experimenting to see if you like it better with ketchup, putting the inedible part neatly at the edge of your plate, etc.
Maybe dinner is not the best meal for the whole family to share, if one kid has sports practice until 6:00 on the same nights one parent has to leave for work at 5:00, etc. All the benefits of “family dinnertime” could be obtained by sitting down to breakfast together, instead, if that works better for you.
“No dinner, no dessert.”
We don’t believe in withholding food. If the kids are hungry an hour after they refused to eat dinner, they’re allowed to eat–but not sweets or junk food! “You need to eat foods that help you grow. If you’re not hungry for real food, you don’t have room for junk food.” This is harder to enforce as kids get older and more able to serve (and buy) their own food, but we keep on repeating the rule. I know from my own childhood that this rule stuck hard in my mind even when I was flouting it!
In my family, we don’t eat “dessert” as such: We don’t have sweets at the end of dinner. Instead of “saving room” for dessert, we eat dinner until we’re full and then stop eating. Simple! Dinner is special in its own right, not something you choke down to earn ice cream. Dessert is a bonus, not an entitlement.
When Nicholas was little, we referred to any food eaten between dinner and bedtime as “dessert” because I’d grown up with that terminology. Eventually, though, he got the idea that “dessert” means sweets, and Lydia has picked up on that. They both like to have a sweet in the evening, either immediately after dinner or about an hour later.
So we keep it small. Sure, there are special occasions when we have birthday cake or go out for Italian ices, but an ordinary dessert is something like one piece of candy, one cookie, or a small dish of chocolate chips. We allow this for people who ate a noticeable amount of dinner.
But if you barely touched the dinner food, or if you ate only the garlic bread and not a bite of protein or vegetables, you’re not ready for dessert! You could have a different veggie or protein now, if you make it yourself or someone’s willing to make it for you, but you need to put real food into your body before you have sweets. Again, it’s crucial that adults follow this rule. It’s good for us as well as a good example for the kids!
A never-ending trickle of candy gets into our house from parties, parades, and children’s events. I stash this candy up in the top of the cupboard. If anyone asks for it, they can have one piece after a healthy meal. You may be surprised how quickly everyone forgets that candy exists when it’s out of sight!
Hey, I included that tip in the “healthy eating habits” article I wrote 17 months ago, with a photo of what was in the top of my cupboard at the time. Let’s see what’s up there now!
Well, those Bean Boozled jelly beans were there last time! Nobody’s eating them. It’s time to throw them away. I’m skeptical about that candy corn, too–is it from last fall??–but I do like candy corn; I’ll eat one now and keep them for a while. The Werther’s candies at left are the remainder of a bag Nicholas bought just a few weeks ago; I put them away in a jar after he lost interest.
See the bags of m&m’s and Skittles held closed with rubber bands? That happens when someone has a treat of a whole “single serving” bag of candy and then wanders off without finishing it: as soon as I spot that (or, if I’m eating it myself, as soon as I feel I’ve had enough), I close it up and put it away. That “single serving” may turn out to be two or three desserts, or we can use the candies to decorate a cake or cookies.
“Never eat anything after 8:00 p.m.”
This advice always makes me want to scream, “You don’t understand!!!” Apparently a lot of people spend their evenings sitting in front of TV, mindlessly munching, and they get fat and diabetic and heart-diseased. Apparently a lot of other people eat a big dinner, slowly digest it all evening, and then sleep untaxed by the toil of filing nutrients in the appropriate slots around the body.
Both approaches seem alien to me. I don’t have time for TV–there are so many other things to do! Especially when I’ve been at work all day, my evening is a constant stream of activity–doing chores, running errands, walking to and from the playground with my kid–heck, I probably climb stairs 10 times in a typical evening! Maybe all that exercise burns off some of my dinner calories. (What screen-time I have is for reading and writing online.)
Also, as I’ve said, we don’t eat a whole lot at dinner, and many of our meals aren’t very calorically dense. My typical dinner is about 500-700 calories. I eat again if I’m hungry. Daniel and I don’t have a late-evening snack every day, but we each do it more days than not.
The idea that humans can’t digest food while sleeping seems preposterous to me. Thanksgiving dinner 20 minutes before bedtime might disrupt my sleep, but a 200-calorie bowl of cereal at 10:30pm won’t keep me from sleeping comfortably at midnight. My digestive processes don’t require conscious supervision and don’t bother me. Maybe I’m just lucky?
Both our kids tend to consume about two-thirds of their calories between 6pm and bedtime–and we all stay slim easily! “How does that work?” scientifically is an open question, since most of the research on meal timing has been done on people who already have metabolic disorders. We’re teaching our kids to follow their instincts about when and how much to eat, and it seems to be working well enough.
But it’s not always easy. When a child attends full-day preschool, she’s got a lot of activity to pack into her evening! Lydia typically gets home at 6:30 and has to be in bed with teeth brushed before 9:00 to get a bedtime story. In those two and a half hours, she wants to eat dinner, dessert, and bedtime snack, as well as play outside, draw a picture, watch a video, take a bath, and play a game! It’s simply not possible–we have to choose which things we will do tonight.
We had this issue with Nicholas as well, and we soon learned that it’s necessary to offer a bedtime snack. A child may not need a snack every night, but it’s important to remind him to evaluate his needs before he runs out of time. Otherwise, you end up with a cranky kid who’s up too late, eating carrots and dip alone at the table while a cranky parent rushes in and out of the room trying to get the laundry done, checking if the kid is ready to brush his teeth yet! (And in our experience, the alternative to letting a hungry kid eat is spending several hours trying to force a screaming kid to stay in bed.) “If you’re hungry, now is the time for a bedtime snack,” has become our mantra.
How to Calibrate Your Personal Metabolic Clock
If your whole life so far has been fueled by meals at the times when “everybody” eats, with the amount and type of food in each meal being whatever your parents used to serve, it might be difficult to cultivate awareness of what food your body really needs at what time. You need to identify the internal and external cues that tell you when and what to eat–and then figure out how to work with/around those cues to establish an eating pattern that keeps your body healthy and happy.
Ideally, you’ll have a day when you’re just hanging around home and can focus on listening to your body. Eat only when you feel hungry. Write down exactly what you ate and how much at what time. Every hour, write down how you’re feeling physically and mentally. Write down when you pooped and if it was unusual in any way. Doing this for multiple days (not necessarily in a row) is more informative than just one day.
If you don’t have a free day in your foreseeable future, you still can work in some mindful moments! Stick paper and a pen in your pocket, or use your phone to take notes on your food, mood, poop, and physical sensations. Try to note the time of each event. Collect as much detail as you can, but don’t stress–whatever data you can get will be better than no data at all!
When you have a moment, go over your notes and look for patterns.
- Are you often eating when you don’t feel hungry at all? Why did you eat? On days when you didn’t eat at that time, what time did you get hungry?
- Was there a time when you felt hungry for an hour or more before eating? What caused the delay? How did you feel when you did eat–relieved and basically normal, or kind of weird? If this happened at a time of day when you usually aren’t hungry, was your previous meal unusual?
- Did you eat a well-balanced diet, or was something lacking? If you didn’t get enough of a food group, how can you make foods in that group more convenient and appealing for yourself?
- After eating, did you feel stuffed-full, just right, or still hungry?
- Did you have any sudden changes in your emotional or physical well-being? If so, did your next meal make it better or worse?
When you think you see a cause and effect, experiment to see if you’re right! Suppose you had a headache starting at 1:00, you felt hungry at 2:00 when a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich was the most convenient thing to eat, and by the time you finished eating it you felt much better. Next time you get a headache, try eating a PB&J. Does it help?
Fitting Food into Your Schedule
As much as possible, plan to eat when you’re hungry and only when you’re hungry. What if work, school, or other activities prevent you from eating at your best times? Well, you’ll have to work around that. Focus on getting the right amount of time between meals/snacks, and you’ll adjust to eating at the specific times that fit around your activities.
When I went back to school after that summer of personalizing my diet, I couldn’t eat at 8:00 and 11:30 anymore–my school bus came at 7:55, and my lunch period wasn’t until 12:30! I had to introduce a mid-morning snack in between my early breakfast and late lunch. I bought packets of cracker sandwiches with “cheese” filling, 6 sandwiches per packet, and I ate 2 little sandwiches each day before the bell rang to begin my 10:20 class, the one that was so close to my locker that I always arrived a few minutes early.
My present self cringes at the memory of those cracker sandwiches–the chemical additives! the plastic packaging!–but I give my past self credit for choosing something with a little protein, anyway, and not much sugar. Eating a specific amount of snack worked well to stave off the hunger pangs without over-eating. Having a snack plan prevented impulse purchases of vending-machine donuts!
When different family members need to eat at different times, try to work out a compromise schedule that’s “close enough” for everyone. Those who are already at home and staaarrrvving an hour before a family meal can do the cooking and nibble on scraps as they work! Or set out an appetizer that’s not too filling–like hummus and raw veggies–to tide them over until everyone’s ready for dinner.
We’ve been wondering if a later dinnertime would work better for our family, seeing that Lydia is really not eager to eat at 6:30 when she gets home…but she’s almost done with preschool. Her summer day camp ends at 3:00, like the public school she’ll attend in the fall. A change in scheduled events can lead to a change in appetite timing. Maybe after 3 hours of playing at home, she’ll be ready for dinner. We’ll see how it goes.
Most experts agree that your eating schedule–and your sleeping schedule–should be consistent every day of the week. That can be difficult when you have plans with other people some days. For example, my family eats breakfast at church every Sunday morning at 9:00, but on weekdays our school/work schedule requires breakfast at 7:00. Sharing a weekly meal with other families is important to us, and we all enjoy the option of sleeping later…so we either sleep until 8:00 and then get dressed and go straight to church, or if we wake earlier we have a little breakfast at home.
It’s important for my family to be alert to our food needs on Sunday afternoons because the amount/type of food we eat at church coffee hour varies wildly, which means we may or may not be hungry for lunch; if not, the possibility of sudden hunger in the afternoon needs to be planned into our outings or home projects. We’ve learned, though, that it’s important not to have too big a snack and not to wait until we’re hungry again to start making dinner! Sunday evening is the time to get back on track so that everyone goes to bed on time and is ready for the usual schedule on Monday.
I’ve also learned not to drink coffee when I feel worn-out in the late afternoon. I might interpret that as sleepiness when it’s really hunger–especially if I’m distracted, working–and the caffeine will make me nervous, while the milk in the coffee won’t give me enough nutrients or calories to keep going. Also, I sometimes get a stomachache from coffee without food. It’s really better for me to have coffee shortly after lunch, even if I don’t feel like I need it yet, to keep my alertness up rather than letting myself run down before I recharge. It’s the same with food: If I’m going to a 4:00 meeting that might last an hour, I eat my snack before the meeting even if I don’t feel hungry yet.
Listening to Your Body
Everyone needs a balance of protein, fat, carbs, and fiber over the course of the day. Everyone needs to get enough calories, but not too many, for her size and activity level. The question is, how much of which types of food should you eat at what time? Your body’s responses will tell you. These questions are in order of how long after eating you’re likely to have each type of reaction.
- Does the food seem appealing? If you like peanut butter in general, but at breakfast it seems bitter and hard to swallow, save your peanut butter for later in the day.
- Do you get a burning sensation in your mouth, throat, chest, or stomach? That can indicate an allergy or acid reflux–and the food triggering you might not be something that seems acidic or spicy.
- Do you feel congested, itchy, or bloated by the end of the meal? That may be an allergy or food sensitivity. Daniel stopped drinking wine after realizing that he never finished a glass without feeling like he’d caught a cold–for an hour.
- Do you feel sluggish or even a little queasy right after the meal? That may mean you ate too much at once, or it might be a specific food that’s hard for you to digest. Maybe you should avoid that food completely, or maybe you can handle it for lunch but not breakfast.
- Do you feel especially happy and healthy for several hours after the meal? I’ve noticed this often results from combining foods a certain way. My best meals combine lentils or beans with an orange vegetable and some fat but not cheese–like honey baked lentils in a buttered squash or sweet potato.
- Do you get hungry again less than two hours after a meal? Tomorrow, make that meal heartier with more protein, fat, and whole grains. Avoid sugar and white flour, which can give you quick energy that runs out suddenly. If this problem persists when you’re eating as much as you can at the meal, plan for a daily snack at your hungry time, and set up healthy, filling food for that time.
- How is your energy level between this meal and the next? Feeling really bouncy can be good if it’s time for aerobics class–but if you need to sit still in a meeting or find the error in your spreadsheet, you’ll want a more focused and consistent kind of energy. Notice which foods give you what you need for that time of day.
- Are you suddenly passing a lot of gas or having abdominal pain? That’s usually related to the last meal I ate–but for people with slower metabolisms, it might be a couple of meals ago. Around 35 years old, I noticed I couldn’t eat so much cheese as I used to: One cheesy meal is okay, especially with plenty of veggies, but another big dose of cheese within 48 hours will trigger gas and bloating that can last several days.
- Do you end up with constipation or diarrhea? Think back over everything you ate in the previous 24 hours. What was an unusual food for you? Were you out of balance, eating a lot more or less fiber, meat, coffee, or spicy food than usual?
- Do you have a rash? You might be reacting to pollen or chemicals that touched your skin, but it could be a food allergy or candida.
Experiment with the timing and composition of your meals to figure out what works well for your body. Talk with your family or friends who ate the same food; if they had the same reaction, maybe they can help you identify the cause. Then again, their bodies may respond very differently to the same food.
Food sensitivities and allergies can take up to 48 hours to show symptoms, which makes it difficult to recognize which food is the culprit. Check out Mary’s book Why Won’t My Child Eat?! and her article on feeding a child with oral sensory issues.
When you’re not sure what to eat, think about what you need to round out the day. In the past 24 hours, have you eaten at least 2 different sources of protein, 5 different fruits and veggies, a high-iron food, a high-calcium food, and some healthy fat? I know the government’s “5 a day” advice is about the minimum number of servings of veggies and fruits for minimally adequate nutrition, but aiming for 5 different veggies or fruits each day gives you a wider variety of nutrients than if you just eat 5 tomatoes–and if you do eat 5 tomatoes plus 4 other plant foods, you’ll get closer to the 10-servings-per-day diet that really reduces risk of cancer and cardiovascular problems.
Plate Portions Pleasingly
You might realize that you’ve been eating more than you really need–but it’s hard to cut back without feeling deprived. On the other hand, you might realize that the reason you get hungry so quickly is that you’re not eating enough at one time. Either way, adjusting your portion size could help. Once you get used to eating a different amount, your stomach’s expectations adjust, and that amount starts to feel normal so that it’s easier to maintain.
The same amount of food looks like more when it’s in a smaller dish. After eating “a whole plate full” of food, you’re more likely to feel satisfied than if your first impression of your meal is that it has a lot of empty space. When you’re making food in units like burgers or muffins, make them small so you can eat several of them; the same amount of food will seem like more than if it was all in one chunk.
If you need to increase your portions, use a larger dish but fill it up as much as you would have filled a smaller one. Eating all the food on your plate may be easier than making yourself take seconds after finishing your habitual portion.
I’ve used portion control in both directions. At age 16, I stabilized my weight at about 125 pounds by reducing the amount I ate at lunch and dinner but having afternoon and evening snacks most days. (Again, that’s me–eating 5 small meals a day is right for some people, not all.) Switching from 10-inch to 8-inch plates made it easier to serve myself sensible portions. For many years after that, I weighed around 125 most of the time without paying much attention–just eating what “looked like the right amount” by my adjusted standards.
Then, when I was 29 and trying to conceive, I thought that gaining a little weight might improve my hormone balance, but I was struggling to do it until my friend Dale gave me some simple advice about portion size and liquid calories. He asked what I was bringing for lunch at work: leftovers in a sandwich-sized box and a piece of fruit; I filled my cup with water at the drinking fountain. He said, “I think you just need to eat more lunch and drink orange juice.” I protested that my lunch bag didn’t have room for juice. Dale opened a closet and pulled out an extra lunch bag he happened to have, which was twice the height of mine, allowing for a refillable juice bottle and a larger container of leftovers! Changing my lunch routine enabled me to gain 10 pounds in 3 months and then stabilize at the new weight. I got used to eating more, and the orange juice added calories that weren’t filling.
Experiment with dish sizes to find the approximate portion size that’s right for each family member, to avoid overeating or food waste. It’s especially effective if you have the same style of dish in multiple sizes. Kids handle smaller dishes more easily and are less likely to complain, “Daddy got more–it’s not fair!” when their own bowl is just as full as his.
Sometimes a little bitty bit of food–like, a quarter-inch long–can give an intense burst of flavor. If you’re trying to train your body to accept smaller portions, but you feel unsatisfied at the end of meals, seek out tiny tastes as you’re cleaning up. A bit of toasty onion left behind in the skillet, a smidgen of sauce from the bottom of the pot, or the last lonely blueberry contains plenty of yumminess, if you hold it in your mouth for a good long time. Savoring these may help you to slow down and appreciate your food. Bonus: You’re avoiding food waste!
Experiment . . . Carefully!
There’s no harm in trying a structured diet like the Whole30–it might lead you to very helpful realizations about which foods have what effect on you. Just make sure you’re listening to your body’s reactions, instead of putting all your attention on following the instructions perfectly. I really like Caitlin’s report on her Master Cleanse experience as an example of how to observe your reactions.
I’ve never followed a named diet like that, but giving up meat for Lent was a transformative experience for Daniel and me 17 years ago. Following clear rules for a set period of time gives you a structure you don’t have when you just “try to eat better,” and as the time goes by, it becomes more evident what really is and isn’t important to you about how you eat. For us, six weeks of not eating meat made us think more about what we were eating, and we started to become more aware of how many packaged foods and “tastes good, but does it actually have nutrients?” foods we were eating . . . and that’s where we really started to take healthy eating more seriously.
Sometimes we need a “rules reset” to break bad habits, but wouldn’t it be better not to develop such bad habits in the first place? Listening to our bodies and calibrating our personal metabolic clocks is something kids can do, too…if their parents will let them!
Teach Children to Eat for Nourishment, Not for Obedience
This study of preschool teachers contrasts Healthy Feeding Practices with Controlling Feeding Practices and includes a table of what previous studies have learned. The main lesson is that controlling what children eat using restriction, punishment, or manipulation is the opposite of healthy! Instead, healthy eating habits are taught by role-modeling and by encouraging self-regulation and experimentation. An interesting finding is that when children had stopped eating, asking if they felt “full” tended to get them to eat some more fruit!
I agree strongly with a quote from one of the childcare providers in that study: “[When] they’re just trying to comply with what you’re saying…then they are not learning that when they are full that they should stop eating. You’re encouraging obesity.” If you tell a child when to eat more and when to stop, you’re teaching her that what her body is telling her is not important. We want our kids to learn to eat just the right amount!
These 5 healthy eating habits to teach kids are my adaptation of what my parents taught me. They allow for a lot of flexibility to suit individual needs, tastes, and schedules without neglecting nutrition. Throughout my life, these habits have helped healthier choices come naturally to me.
Here’s the thing about parental discipline: When you’re standing over your child telling him exactly what to do, then he’s doing it because you’re making him do it. What he’ll do when you’re not around is anybody’s guess. When you teach your child general rules and the reasons for them, and you think out loud and model these habits yourself, then she learns how to make decisions about food. She won’t need you to tell her what to eat; she’ll understand how to decide for herself. There’s a big difference between following rules and reasoning.
I don’t believe that kids can’t be trusted to eat what’s right for them. You do have to teach and guide them. You don’t have to force them. Just because they’re not eating what you would eat, or what you think they should eat, doesn’t mean they’re ruined for life.
My kids eat very well. They don’t like everything, but they’ll try just about anything. Seeing them reject some of our favorite, nutritious, lovingly prepared foods is annoying, and it does make me worry about their health–but when I focus on the favorite foods that they request over and over again, hey, they’re not doing so badly! And their snarky criticism of certain food products gives me hope! (For example, Lydia recently said, “Do you know there’s yogurt that comes in a plastic tube? And you’re supposed to suck your mouth right on the outside of it, on the printing? And it’s supposed to be…fun?!“)
For many families, however, dealing with picky eaters or constant snackers is a huge issue, and the kids aren’t nourishing themselves well. That’s where observation and assessment come in handy! Try interviewing your child, using the questions above. Flatter him with attention, filling in his food-and-feelings diary. Talk him through understanding his body and his food, and in the process you’ll understand some things that seemed to make no sense.
Instead of imposing rules for the kids to reject as soon as you turn your back, help them figure out what their personal rules are. They’ll be much more likely to follow them! Listen to your kids’ bodies by consulting the experts who live in those bodies, and help them master their own metabolisms for life!