Children as Young as Four Eat More When Bored

Bored children consume more—much more, as a study shows. Within four minutes, bored children, on average, ingested around 80 percent more kilocalories than the children in a control group, reported a research team led by Claire Farrow from the University in Birmingham in the journal “Food Quality and Preference.” If children consume so many calories during a single four-minute bout of boredom, the potential for excessive calorie intake over a day, a week, or a year is significant.

In certain situations, such as long train or car journeys, it is generally acceptable for children to eat more, said Antje Gahl from the German Society Nutrition (DGE). Parents could even deliberately take advantage of this by including healthy items in the box that may not be as popular otherwise. “Children will eat what is available.” In general, it is advisable to bring healthy snacks like fruits and vegetables when traveling, and a small chocolate bar or a handful of gummy bears is still acceptable.

However, outside of such rare situations, children should not eat out of boredom or for comfort in their daily lives, explained Gahl. This can lead to harmful habits that persist into adulthood. “Eating behavior is significantly shaped in childhood.”

Emotional Feeding

The study’s lead, Farrow, pointed out the temptation to use food to calm children. However, she cautioned that this behavior, known as Emotional Feeding, could lead to adults associating negative emotions with food later in life. She emphasized the importance of parents and caregivers understanding that this short-term solution may lead to future problems.

In the British experiment, approximately 120 four- and five-year-old children were divided into groups. All were told they could do a puzzle and would receive a small gift afterward.

In the boredom group, some children had to sit at the table and wait for a few minutes. Subsequently, each of these children had to wait another four minutes but could either help themselves to snacks like cookies, chips, and carrot sticks or engage in playing with toys. Only then were they allowed to do the puzzle.

For other children in the control group, boredom was not induced through waiting times. They immediately solved the puzzle, after which they were also given the choice to help themselves to snack bowls or play for four minutes.

Children in the boredom group consumed, on average, 42 kilocalories—nearly 80 percent—more during the four snack minutes than children in the control group. This effect was particularly pronounced when parents regularly used sweets to calm or occupy their children.

According to the German Nutrition Society (DGE), children aged four to six require 1300 to 1800 kilocalories (kcal) per day. Gahl emphasized the importance of a varied and diverse food offering. Sweets and snacks should account for a maximum of one-tenth of the daily energy intake. For four- to six-year-olds, this is approximately 150 kilocalories daily, equivalent to about 20 gummy bears or 40 grams.

Conditions such as “Eat your vegetables before having something sweet” or using sweets as a punishment should be avoided, as well as casual snacking while watching TV. Gahl stressed the significance of shared meals where electronic devices are removed from the table. In these situations and many others, parents should be aware that they serve as role models for their children regarding nutrition, both positively and negatively.