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How To Teach Children To Recognize Hunger And Full Signals

Helping kids recognize their feelings of being hungry and full is a key to good weight control

Do you want to give your children the tools to stay lean through adulthood?  Helping your kids to recognize when they are hungry and full is one of the most important areas of (what I would label as) food education.

This simple act of eating when hungry and stopping when full can help your child (and you) obtain a lifetime of good weight control. Children who eat when they are  bored, snack out of habit and who are ‘forced’ to finish all the food on their plates will do the same when they are adults. When children eat when they are not hungry or over fill their appetites, this (forcefully) increases their risk to be overweight or obese.

The challenging part of food education is helping our children learn good food habits: to arrive at the dinner table feeling hungry (and the adults equally hungry), to appreciate the act of eating and to understand the physical sensations of fullness. And this is not an easy task for parents and caregivers!

Hunger: recognizing the sensation of hunger, of an appetite growing to eat good food, of a desire to fill this hunger with balanced meals. A sensation of hunger is not just the physical growling in the stomach, it is also a hunger to eat a balanced meal.

Fullness: recognizing the sensation of being full, satiated and completing the ‘ritual’ of enjoying a meal around a table.

Ways to teach your children to recognize hunger and full signals

The most basic way to teach kids to recognize their hunger and satiety (fullness but too much) signals is to continue to reinforce a routine of sitting down at the dinner table hungry, eating a normal non-rushed meal, and leaving the table feeling full. When your kids regularly arrive to the table to eat, with the physical sensations of their stomach ‘growling’ and their appetite growing, they will keep these instinctual feelings of hunger and (then) fullness that will serve them thru adulthood.

Teaching kids to recognize their physical sensations towards eating and satiety sounds ‘nice’ and easy, but it isn’t. It takes work, food planning, saying no (sometimes) to your kids, being flexible and starting good habits (very) early.

It is not a punishment if your child feels hungry between meals and you enforce a waiting time until mealtime, or suggest they eat a small piece of fruit to hold them over. Snacking too close to mealtime will stop hunger for the main meal.

It is okay if your child does not finish their plate because they are full.

Your child will be okay if they refuse to eat their meal and thus skip their meal on an occasional basis.

In my experience, what makes this process easier (like any education we use with our children) is setting up good habits from an early age. And this early age means when they are infants. (Yes, that is right). Infants instinctively have their hunger and full signals ‘wired’ by their physical needs to eat often, and it is our role to watch, respect and listen to our babies and feed them when they are hungry and stop when they are full. (Oh, this is a delicate job!)

By teaching your children the art of feeling hungry and full, you also teach them lessons for a lifetime: the joy of sitting at a table, food appreciation and taste.

Ways to encourage your children to arrive to the dinner table hungry

Here are some practical ways that I keep my kids hungry before the big meals.

  • Allow only water for drinks before (and during) meals
  • Saying no to snacks at least one hour-two hours before meals
  • Getting kids moving: pushing them outside for at least one hour of physical activity a day
  • Setting a nice table with no outside distractions: (telephone or television): making meal time a privileged moment during the day for conversation and light atmosphere
  • Making simple good meals that are tasty and healthy
  • Asking for help: Involving children in meal planning and preparation

When your kids are truly hungry and have a good appetite, you’ll see the difference when they eat. They will eat what you put in front of them and enjoy their meals.

Ways to encourage your children to leave the table just full and satiated

If you get your kids to the table hungry, this next part is easier. A hungry child will eat their meal and stop when full if they are sitting at a table eating in a relaxed environment. I use these other tricks too:

  • Allow only water for drinks during meals
  • Have a ‘must taste’ food rule
  • Offer small portions
  • Re-serve second helpings if the first small portions are eaten
  • Not forcing to finish their food on their plate (it can be wrapped up for leftovers)
  • Not offering dessert if they haven’t eaten because they were not hungry
  • Not encouraging the habit of ‘re-eating’ a large snack soon after meals because they didn’t eat their food and are now hungry (this one my two youngest like to ‘try’ as they have smaller appetites which get filled up quickly)
  • Reminding kids at the end of the meal that they need to leave the table full because the next meal is several hours away

And the rest is up to them.

The key to making it work is to start early and not to force your kids to finish their plates

I am not going to tell you that all my suggestions will work easily (and quickly) to help your children to eat well, to eat when they are hungry, and to appreciate their meals. It is not a simple task. Even now (with my four kids), some meals are challenging, the days are busy, sometimes they eat outside the home at school and friend’s homes, and they (sometimes-ahah) don’t like food I serve.

But the main tip that has worked for me is starting each of my kids early, when they were just babies, and to never force them to finish their plates. Even babies, when they are beginning to eat at six months old, can begin the process of ‘food education’ if we (as parents and caregivers) recognize when they are hungry and full. It is intuitive in babies to ‘scream out’ in hunger and let us know when they are full. And it is our role to respect this.

The French way of children’s food education is also part of my food tips

Yes, the French do this part right: the French support strict food education and cultural eating habits that help children to establish a ‘hunger and full’ routine.

My ways (see above in the lists) of helping children recognizing their food signals come from what I see happening over here in France. The French are (quite) strict with their kids and their eating routine. But living here I can see the benefits for French kids and so I use them too: being a bit strict (I call it ‘meal discipline’) can help children establish good food habits that help keep them lean and healthy throughout childhood.

Wishing you luck feeding your kids! If you have any questions or comments do not hesitate to post them or contact me.

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5 Responses to How To Teach Children To Recognize Hunger And Full Signals

  1. Marie November 14, 2015 at 19:59 #

    Thank you so much for this post. As a dietitian myself, I am fascinated about the American culture and our gradual trend towards obesity in this past century. As we try to pinpoint certain foods or food establishments, we fail to see that there are several reasons that we are in the position today. I feel that a piece of this begins with childhood and the habits that are formed. I’ve cringed while watching well-meaning friends and family force-feed their little ones or limiting them to a diet of pizza and chicken nuggets and expressed their frustration at why their little one is not eating. Often bribery with dessert is their resort, which can lead to emotional eating later down the road. In addition, when the child is unable to verbalize, “I’m full,” and must submit to eating the amount of food their parents/caregivers desire, they are learning to ignore that feeling of fullness which contributes to over-eating later in life. I have met several middle-aged men who don’t eat vegetables to this day because it was forced upon them at childhood. I think there’s something to the French approach to food that we can learn a great deal from. Thank you for what you do, Mary.

    • mbrighton November 24, 2015 at 14:52 #

      Marie, apologies for the delay in responding. THANK YOU ! Your comment is very appreciated. Warmly, Mary

  2. Sharon February 3, 2015 at 17:03 #

    Great article for moms by a bright dietitian who studied in Colorado. The “wait” period between snacks and meals is truly important. The “must taste” rule is a great way to get children to try new foods. I agree with everything except that I would allow either water or milk as a beverage at meals. Visit my for more ideas on the “wait” period.
    Sharon recently posted..STOP EMOTIONAL EATING – WAIT

    • mbrighton February 4, 2015 at 16:05 #

      Thanks Sharon ! I better read my article again….Did I say not to give kids water between meals? That is wrong ! I will check what I wrote, perhaps I mistyped something. Water between meals is fine in my opinion. I will check out your article too.


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