Hangry Children? How to Help Kids with Extreme Hunger

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Hangry Children? How to Help Kids with Extreme Hunger

Has your child ever been hangry? The state of being hungry and angry? Hangry children are a “thing.” Learn why kids get hangry and what you can do about it.

I get hangry.

My kids get hangry and many parents I talk to tell me their young children and older kids do, too.

My husband can take a look at me and ask, “When did you eat last?” Or say, “Looks like you need to get something to eat.”

One of my kids gets hangry, too.

She needs to eat nutritious meals and healthy snacks frequently throughout the day (and always has) or she is just not right.

Little boy looking in the refrigerator.

Is Angry When Hungry Actually a Thing?

Yes, it is! Hangry is a popular catchphrase used to describe that feeling when you’ve gone too long without eating.

Hangry moments can be mixed with moodiness, anger, meltdowns and temper tantrums.

When you’re hangry, you can eat anything and everything right now.

It’s common to see picky eaters get hangry, simply because they haven’t eaten enough at mealtimes.

Food insecurity is another situation where children don’t get enough food or don’t know when their next meal will happen. Childhood hunger can cause children to experience erratic swings in blood sugar levels, which may cause bad mood swings and behavioral problems. 

Hangry Isn’t Head Hunger

Hangry is a physical sensation, related to a low blood sugar level which changes your child’s mood, sometimes very quickly.

It’s not to be confused with head hunger, or the idea or thinking that you’re hungry.

In this case, the body isn’t sending the appetite signals.

For example, the child who complains of being hungry right after they eat is a case of head hunger rather than physical hunger or being hangry.

What’s going on?

The difference between physical hunger and head hunger graphic

A Background on Appetite

We are born with a natural sense of hunger, an ability to recognize it, and a desire to quench it pretty effectively.

Think about babies: when they’re hungry they cry, letting us know it’s time to eat.

Not all cries indicate hunger though. Babies cry for a variety of reasons, including discomfort, a wet diaper, and more.

A hangry toddler may tell us by whining, or “melting down.”

Children coming home from school may tear into the refrigerator or pantry, “starving” and desperate to eat, looking for an afternoon snack.

For kids, hunger is powerful.

Hunger starts in the stomach and blood stream with a dip in blood sugar after a period of time has passed without eating (generally three to four hours for kids; less for toddlers).

This blood sugar dip alerts the brain to tell the stomach to secrete the hunger hormone, ghrelin.

Ghrelin (I think of it as “GRRRR, I’m hungry”) causes feelings of hunger and alerts your child to the obvious fact: a need to eat.

Being hangry is this feeling exponentiated.

Read more about your kid’s appetite.

Growth Affects Hunger

The dynamic process of growing during a developmental stage triggers hunger and prompts children to eat.

Just think about the teenager: he eats a lot because he is in a growth spurt.

A common “tell” is the frequent grocery store stops by parents, like every two days, just to keep the kitchen stocked.

Just remember, appetite always follows growth.

Read more about the growth spurt in 13 Signs Your Child is in a Growth Spurt.

Kids eating ice cream cones

What Causes Kids to Overeat?

When children go for long stretches without food, obviously that can cause some fierce hunger.

Also, if your meals don’t provide enough calories, or lack nutrients such as protein or fat, children may become hungry because their appetite isn’t satisfied.

In teens, having a dose of protein at breakfast (about 25 to 30 grams) seems to help keep them feel full for a longer time than a breakfast without protein or low amounts of protein.

When kids aren’t satisfied after meals and snacks, hunger may build up, leading to overeating and/or unhealthy food choices, and yes, potentially being hangry.

Extreme hunger will almost always lead to overeating.

Read: 10 Reasons Your Child is Eating Too Much

How Do You Prevent Hangry Moments in Children?

The best way to deal with a child who tends to get hangry is to prevent it.

Your best bet for doing this is to have a strategy with meals and snacks, including the timing of eating and the foods you choose to serve.

Of course, hunger may still occur at unexpected times, especially if your child is in the midst of a growth spurt.

However, a strategy can help you make sure that panhandling in the kitchen every hour is the exception, not the rule.

4 Tips for Preventing Hangry Children

Nobody wants a hangry kid.

Here are a few suggestions to make sure your child is well-fed.

1. Plan meals and snacks to occur at about the same time every day.

Consistent access to meals and snacks, scheduled predictably throughout the day is a great way to prevent children from becoming too hungry.

For toddlers and preschoolers, schedule a regular meal every 2-3 hours. 

For kids, aim for meals and healthy snacks to happen every 3-4 hours.

And for teens, meals can happen every 3-5 hours with an afternoon snack.

Avoid skipped meals or snacks, as this can lead to overeating later on.

2. Use filling, nutritious foods at meals and at snacks. 

Sensible amounts of low fat dairy products, dairy alternatives that contain 5 grams or more of protein per cup, lean meats, eggs, nuts, and beans are all protein-containing foods, which when eaten, trigger fullness cues and may give your child a feeling of fullness.

Fiber is also a food component that keeps you full longer and it can be found in 100% whole grains, fruit, vegetables, beans and more.

Last, adding a healthy fat source to meals, such as avocado, olive oil or foods with inherent fat, like whole milk, can also improve fullness and prevent kids from having a hard time with feeling hungry.

3. Load up early. 

A nutritious breakfast starts the body’s “engine” and sets the pattern for eating at regular intervals throughout the day.

Kids who skip breakfast may find themselves hungrier after school and at dinnertime.

4. Ask your child: Are you really hungry?

This question starts the conversation about eating and feeling satisfied and helps your child start to be more aware of his appetite, what works best to satisfy it, and prevents emotional eating.

If he says he really is hungry (and it’s not meal or snack time), then offer some fruit or other nutritious food (yogurt, veggies).

Don’t cave into requests for cookies or cheesy crackers.

How do you manage a hangry child?

Want More Help with Feeding Your Child?

As a pediatric dietitian, I’ve created guidebooks and parent classes and workshops to help you feed your child better!

the nourished child blueprint class

Originally published in December 2015 | Updated November 2023

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