The Dangers of Kids Skipping Meals

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Photo: Djedzura for Getty Images

The power of three is a real thing when it comes to kids’ meals. Preschoolers who consistently consume just two meals a day are more likely to have excess body fat and are at greater risk for diabetes or heart disease — as early as age 6, according to research from the University of Eastern Finland (UEF).

"Based on the findings, sticking to regular meals seems to be crucial for preventing overweight and cardiometabolic diseases already in childhood," Aino-Maija Eloranta, a doctoral candidate at the UEF’s Institute of Biomedicine and Physiology, said during her presentation of the study, according to the Business Standard Eloranta surveyed the meals of more than 500 six- to eight-year-olds in the Finnish Physical Activity and Nutrition in Children Study for her research, which was published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition, International Journal of Obesity and European Journal of Nutrition

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Dinner was the meal most often ditched, Eloranta revealed to Time about the children, who gobbled up to 42 percent of their daily calories from snacks. (Only 45 percent of the boys and 34 percent of the girls in the study ate three meals each day). “That was a surprise,” she said. “Among older children, adolescents and even adults, breakfast is the one that is skipped.”

But how’s a parent supposed to get three squares into picky eaters or kids who flat-out refuse food at mealtimes?

Not with the “Clean Plate Club,” which has been proven to mess up children’s relationship with food. (Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that preschoolers told to clean their plates are more likely to request larger portions of food when away from home. [This] confirms our notion that the modeling influence of a parent can play a significant role in eating behaviors,” report the authors of “Consequences of Belonging to the ‘Clean Plate Club,’” published in the Archives of Adolescent and Pediatric Medicine.) 

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First, make sure you’re serving at least something that your child likes each meal, Keri Glassman, nutritionist and founder of Nutritious Life, advises Yahoo Parenting. That’s not to say you have to be held hostage by pizza or macaroni every night, but “you can’t expect a kid who hates fish to eat a full fish dish,” she says. “Do surf and turf instead or offer the child who doesn’t like fish chicken to go with the vegetables the rest of the family is eating.”

Then look at your family’s snack situation. “Parents sometimes make the mistake of feeding children a snack the second they say they’re getting hungry,” says Glassman. “If dinner is in 20 minutes, and a child says she’s hungry but isn’t melting down, have her wait to eat until dinner so she can eat healthy food when she’s truly hungry.”

Finally, institute a house rule. “Parents should say, ‘In this house, we always take two bites of the food as ‘Thank you’ bites to the cook for preparing the meal,” Sharon Silver, parenting author, educator, coach and founder of Proactive Parenting tells Yahoo Parenting. “If that’s all they want to eat, that’s their choice.” Unless the child has a real emotional issue, “they’re not going to go on a hunger strike,” adds Glassman.  “We all have natural hunger cues and it’s important that we, including children, listen to them.”

In other words, channel your inner Elsa and instead of engaging in a power struggle, just let it go.

“Kids are really only fully in charge of four things: when and if they eat, pee, sleep, and how fast they walk,” explains Silver. “And for whatever reason, they typically withhold nourishing themselves with food to show a parent who holds the power.” Force their hand and you lose every time, she says, because it’s ultimately up to the child whether or not food crosses their lips.

“When parents try to make kids eat, it shifts the focus from how food is good for you, how it nourishes you and helps you grow, to fighting and yelling,” she says. “It creates an atmosphere of tension each time meal time comes around.” And with 21 meals a week, that’s a lot of unnecessary stress. Isn’t there already enough on your plate?

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