No parent likes to see good food go to waste. On the other hand, modern parenting advice suggests parents let their children manage their own hunger—and sense of being full. Which brings you to that half-eaten plate of pasta, that handful of cheddar crackers, and that last chicken nugget. May as well finish it yourself, right?
It may seem like a virtuous action designed to rid the planet of food waste, but when you take on the role of plate cleaner, you become an “unconscious grazer,” and consume extra calories without fully realizing it.
“Unconscious grazing is a mindless action,” says Rachel Stahl, MS, CDN, a New York City–based registered dietitian. “When you eat mindlessly, you’re not in tune with your own feelings around hunger, mood, and energy levels—and over time, that can affect your weight.”
Unconscious grazing isn’t limited to the kid’s plates, of course. Maybe your partner didn’t love the salmon tonight, or there’s a plate of homemade treats in the break room. And of course, certain snacking situations are cliché for a reason—like when you’re watching TV or prepping and cooking dinner.
Want to stay tuned in to what you eat, in every situation? Try these smart strategies.
Keep a food journal.
At WW, we call it tracking—and you can do it in your app, in your phone, or in a paper journal. Recording what you ate, how much, and when, helps you be more aware of the foods you’re consuming throughout the day. By tracking your eating habits, you can pinpoint times when you unconsciously graze and consider what may trigger it. Are you skipping breakfast—only to make several trips to your co-worker’s candy jar before lunch? Do you snack before dinner because you ate lunch too early? Once you spot patterns in your eating, you can decide if you want to make changes.
Eat off a plate (your plate).
Make it a habit to only eat from a plate, even if it’s a quick handful of something. “This way you see what you’re eating as a meal and are more aware of the amount, which can keep you from going for seconds,” says Marta Montenegro, MS, a certified nutrition specialist in Miami. If you really want to finish the mac and cheese your kid left behind, put it on your own plate and make note of the portion before digging in.
Intentional grazing helps many people manage their hunger throughout the day. The key is to prepare snacks that are low in sugar and balanced in fats, protein, and fiber. Think plain fat-free Greek yogurt with berries, sliced apple with peanut butter, or fresh cut veggies with hummus. Prepare them ahead of time so they’ll be available and ready when you are.
Take the time to be present with your food. It takes about 20 minutes for fullness signals to transmit from the stomach back to the brain, so the slower you eat, the more time your body and brain has to signal you are full. Enjoy a sip of iced tea, make conversation with your family—take a pause before taking seconds. “That way you are less tempted to reach for another serving, or pick at your kid’s unfinished dinner,” says Montenegro.