The importance of structured mealtimes

Children thrive on predictability. Predictable environments positively impact children’s cognitive, social, and emotional development. One of the ways you can provide a predictable environment for your child is by having structured mealtimes. In this blog, you’ll learn what structured mealtimes are, and why they’re important.

What are structured mealtimes?

Structured mealtimes are planned meals and snacks which are provided at the same, or similar times, each day.

As quoted by Ellyn Satter in her book ‘Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family’, mealtime structure “is your servant, not your master”. Structured mealtimes do not need to be implemented rigidly – life happens, after all! It’s okay to be flexible and spontaneous from time to time, however, consistency is key.  

Eight benefits of structured mealtimes

Helps kids feel secure

Providing structured meals to children helps them feel safe and secure. Kids learn that their parents and caregivers can be trusted and relied upon to feed them. Children get to know when meals and snacks will be served, which helps them manage their expectations around mealtimes. When access to food is limited or inconsistent, children (and adults) can become extremely preoccupied with food. This can lead to behaviours such as constantly thinking about food, hoarding food, overeating, and binging.

Develops their sense of hunger and fullness

Providing structured meals and snacks to children helps them to develop their sense of hunger and fullness. Children learn to feel and recognise the physical signs of hunger and fullness. Eating in response to hunger and fullness (i.e., self-regulation) is an important part of becoming a confident eater and developing positive relationships with food and eating. Self-regulation helps prevent overeating or undereating, which can negatively impact a child’s health, growth, and development.

Prevents grazing

Grazing is a pattern of eating in which small or modest amounts of food are frequently eaten in an unplanned manner, and not in response to hunger or fullness cues. Grazing interferes with a child’s ability to recognise and respond to their hunger and fullness cues, which can lead them to overeat or undereat. Providing structured meals and snacks helps to prevent grazing.

Builds appetite

Providing structured meals and snacks with adequate windows of time between each eating opportunity, allows children to get hungry. This helps to build their appetite in preparation for their next meal or snack.

Encourages healthy eating

When parents and caregivers provide structured meals and snacks, children are more likely to eat a balanced and nutritious diet.

Supports energy, mood, and concentration

Children have smaller stomachs than adults, so they need to eat frequently. Providing structured meals and snacks to children ensures they are provided with regular opportunities to eat. Children are therefore more likely to consume the energy and nutrients they need to stay focused and alert throughout the day. Additionally, children are less likely to experience blood sugar fluctuations, which can cause mood swings, irritability, and fatigue.

Reduces fussiness

Providing structured meals and snacks to children is associated with less food fussiness in young children.

Promotes eating together

When parents and caregivers provide structured meals and snacks, they are more likely to eat together with their children. Eating together provides a wide range of benefits to both children and adults.  

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