hunger child

We eat to nourish our bodies and help keep our heart, muscles and bones strong. But adults sometimes eat for other reasons, even when they are not hungry. We eat while we watch a movie or go to a baseball game; when we celebrate a birthday; or when we are sad, angry or bored.

Has your preschooler ever eaten lunch, and then 20 minutes later said "I'm hungry?"

Here's Why:

Like adults, during the early years, many children start to use the word "hungry" to express feelings, such as boredom, loneliness, sadness or other emotions they don't understand or can't name. Using food to relieve sadness or other emotions will establish a connection between food and those feelings, instead of between food and hunger. Over time, this can be more difficult to undo. And, it won't address the real reason for the sadness


If a child complains of hunger, take a minute to gently ask questions to see what's really going on: "What have you been doing?" or "Would you like me to help you find something to do?" If the child quickly forgets about a snack, you'll know he or she was in search of some attention or just looking for something to do. If the hunger complaints continue, you probably have a hungry child on your hands.


It's wise for parents and teachers to talk to children about what it means to be hungry and what it means to be full. Most of us are born with the ability to gauge our body's need for food, but over time we learn to ignore these signals, which may contribute to weight gain. Children who truly understand when they are hungry, or full, can better regulate how much food to eat. It’s no surprise that children who don't recognize when they're full are more likely to be overweight.


Here are some ways to encourage children's awareness of when they're full:

  • Avoid the "clean your plate" rule. Let children know that it's okay to stop eating if they feel full. This encourages children to respond to their own body.
  • If a child regularly leaves a lot of uneaten food, try serving smaller portions.
  • Talk to children about how we eat more slowly as we become full. Remind them that it's okay not to take seconds if you're no longer hungry. Say, "This is delicious, but I'm going to stop because I'm full."
Remember that children watch what others say and do. If teachers, parents and siblings all model healthy eating habits, a preschooler will have good examples to follow.
hunger boy


Adapted from Hunger and Your Preschooler
Preschooler M.D., M. L. (2014, November). Hunger and your Preschooler. Retrieved from

Buffington, A. and Lindsay, A. 2021, Hunger & Fullness - Building Tummy Awareness, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, FS-21-88

Learn more about the author(s)


Also of Interest:

A boy holding radishes
A Balanced Diet
A balanced diet gives your body all of the essential nutrients it needs to stay active, healthy, and strong. Learn how you can balance your diet to get the energy you need throughout the day.
Buffington, A., Lindsay, A. 2021, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno, FS-21-106
Healthy Kids Resource Center: Policies, Procedures & Partners Section
Find links to Federal and State policies and regulations
Lindsay, A. and Taylor, S. 2020, Extension | University of Nevada, Reno

Associated Programs

Kids and leader dancing with colored scarves in a classroom

Healthy Kids Resource Center

A one-stop shop for evidence-based research, resources, curricula, activities and materials that focus on obesity prevention for teachers and parents of young children. It is designed to educate parents and teachers as well as provide the tools needed to teach young children how to live a healthy lifestyle.