Boredom Eating: You’re Not Hungry, You’re Bored!
If you have children or grandchildren, you have likely noticed that their first resort when bored is to turn to food for something to do. What's even more interesting, is that the same habits we witness in children are also found on most adults as well.
Even among adults, with enough time on our hands, most of us will eventually use them to put something into our mouths, not out of hunger but out of boredom. If you can short-circuit that pattern, you've made a major victory in changing a common, unhealthy eating pattern.
But it's easier said than done. Boredom eating is an easy, automatic response to get into. Most of us develop it early in life and reinforce it for years and years. How many times have you wandered idly over to the refrigerator, pulled it open and stood gazing vaguely into the bright interior, waiting for some moment of inspiration? That's boredom eating. If you were actually experiencing hunger, your physical need would bring you to a quick decision.
Now, how many times have you caught your kids doing it? One woman we know remembers a summer afternoon when she wandered into the kitchen as her mother returned from the store. She stood doing the "refrigerator gaze" for a good, solid minute while her mother hustled around her putting groceries away, until mom became annoyed at the obstacle and demanded to know what the child was doing.
"I'm hungry!" she whined.
"No you're not," her mother snapped. "You're in the way, is what you are! Now, go outside and sweep the steps!"
It's too bad we don't catch ourselves at it and redirect with the same definitive response. By paying attention to those habits developing in our kids, and teaching them ways to identify and redirect themselves, we too can learn to control our own false hunger signals.
Know it when you see it
The "refrigerator gaze" is a remarkably reliable flag, and one you can share with your children to help them learn to identify what's really bugging them, boredom or hunger. Put it to the test. Next time you find yourself standing in front of the pantry cupboard or the refrigerator waiting for inspiration, suddenly offer an active alternative.
If he's in the middle of smearing blue streaks across the tub and your child still asks for a sandwich, you've probably got a hungry kid. But if the need to feed seems to disappear when there's something more interesting going on, that's boredom eating. And you can point it out in a positive way to help your child learn to manage it.
You may already have a couple diversions on hand that you've put aside for summer, fresh art supplies, a few new books, DVDs or even video games that you're waiting to break out when the kids are in the depths of the summer doldrums. Consider saving those for moments when boredom is being expressed as a desire to eat.
Asleep at the...bowl?
Distinct from the bored pursuit of snacks, another dietary risk of summertime is mindless munching. This is not when food is sought out as a diversion unto itself, but rather, when it's mindlessly consumed, ancillary to some particular activity. Having a bag of chips open nearby and periodically grabbing a handful between levels of Super Mario, that's mindless munching. If your kids are watching TV and they go from one snack to another to accompany their viewing, that's mindless munching.
It's not always bad to have a snack with an activity, but be aware, and help your kids be aware of how that intake builds up. We rarely engage in mindless munching while we're doing something physically active. Kids splashing in the pool will almost never bother to get out for a handful of corn chips. Even something like painting or working with clay is engaging enough that most kids won't ask for, or even bother with a snack if it's offered.
But with sedentary activities like TV, video games or even reading, the accompanying snack is a quick route to needless weight gain. Not only are they taking the junk in, they're not burning anything, either.
Prepare for resistance
But be forewarned: kids will defend their supposed hunger, especially in those self-assertive "tween" years. They'll argue that it's not boredom; it really is hunger. You may get caught in the trap of playing "list the specials" for a resistant child, only to have each idea rejected.
If the answer to a food suggestion is "boring," you can be pretty sure that you're dealing with ennui and not hunger.
For working parents, your kids may be in structured care or day camps during the summer, but when you get home from work, there's still a lot of hours left in those long summer days, so you could face an evening full of this sort of thing, even after you've given them a proper supper.
And for stay-at-home parents who are busy with various tasks around the house, it's easy to let the usual routine deteriorate a bit as kids fend for themselves a bit more-and sometimes too much! As much as we like to relax routine during summer, one important tool for limiting boredom eating is to stick to some kind of regular structure, and to put some of the responsibility on the child (age-appropriate, of course).
If your kids get to do more of their own meal preparation during the summer, be sure to have them choose something substantial with protein to start their day. And then have them keep track of their own nibbling, perhaps by keeping a running list of what they're eating and when; even the smallest children can draw pictures of what they're having. Because if children aren't really satisfied by what they're eating, just like adults, they try eating some more, and on an idle summer day, that can really start to add up.
Food journaling is a great tool for people actively trying to manage their weight, but it's also a very good way to raise kids' awareness level about their own mindless munching. And it's another little task to keep their mind busy for a few moments--not to mention that it could help keep those handwriting skills fresh over the long summer, too!
THROUGH THICK & THIN: Boredom Eating
It's paradoxical that when we eat out of boredom, we eat the most boring things: bagged snacks, cookies, sodas, a slab of baloney on processed white bread. It's food that takes little attention or effort, but it's also usually pretty unsatisfying. For kids and adults, limiting the choices on hand to a few good, healthy snacks--especially if they take some minor preparation--can help limit some of the summer's idle intake of empty calories.