If you’re feeling a little confused as to how often you should be eating, you’re not alone. The first clue to the answer lies in the word ‘should’: There is no ‘should’. Eating does not come with hard and fast rules – so what works for one person, may not necessarily work for another.

Here are some factors to consider:

Where did this whole ‘smaller portions, more frequent’ thing come from?

The promotion of the ‘six small meals a day’ type of eating for weight control came about after research showed a difference in how many kilojoules your body uses between digesting one large meal compared to six small ones over the course of the day. The latter uses up a few extra kilojoules compared to taking in all your kilojoules at once. The simplistic conclusion was that we can waste a few kilojoules by spreading out our food intake. But this research looked at two extremes. And when you compare two closer styles of eating – say three meals a day versus six – there are no significant differences. So really, the conclusion we can draw is that it’s certainly a better idea to have at least a couple of meals a day, rather than going all day on nothing and then consuming a huge meal with all your daily kilojoules at once.

Should you change up your eating routine?

The positive to eating six small meals versus the traditional three is that you’re less likely to get ravenously hungry – a time when you are in danger of overeating. However, the downside is that it generally takes a lot more organisation. In my experience, many people who try the 6 meals a day diet end up eating more as they cannot help but fall back on their old habits of what and how much to eat at breakfast, lunch and dinner. Australian culture centres around three meals a day, with morning and afternoon tea also common. So for many of you, three meals and two snacks is probably normal. This structure really works well for many – provided you make good food choices at each eating occasion.

More or less – which is better?

For kids, regular eating is especially important. They have smaller stomachs and therefore literally cannot eat as much in one go, yet at the same time they have relatively high energy requirements to fuel their growth and development. For that reason I recommend sticking to those five eating occasions, with possibly an evening snack too for those that need it. However for adults, often eating less is more successful. Fasting has become another popular approach to dieting – but how about just fasting between meals? Try adopting a ‘kitchen-closed’ policy after dinner and then fast until breakfast the next morning. You just might find you sleep better and without all those less healthy snacks in front of the TV at night, you might find you lose a kilo or so too.

A few tips on snacking…

My basic rule for whether or not to snack during the day is to ask yourself – how hungry are you? If you’re truly hungry and have more than two hours to go until mealtime, then having a nutritious snack is a good idea. It will prevent you from being so hungry come mealtime that you overeat. On the other hand, if it’s less than two hours to a meal and you’re a little hungry, then don’t snack. Distract yourself, have a cup of tea or a glass of water and wait. You won’t starve in the meantime; you have energy stores on board to tide you over. Then come mealtime you’ll truly enjoy and appreciate the meal. So what are healthy snack options? Here are some great options for kids and adults alike:

  • A sliced apple or pear with a chunk of cheddar cheese
  • A little bowl of mixed nuts, prunes or dried apricots and a few dark chocolate chips
  • A bowl of natural yoghurt with berries & a sprinkle of pepitas or chia seeds
  • A Freedom Foods Crunchola or Crafted Blends bar
  • For the kids, a packet of XI or Rainbow Crunchers
  • A green smoothie of celery, cucumber, lemon, spinach, pineapple and mint
  • A protein shake of milk, natural yoghurt, banana and berries
  • A homemade wholegrain fruit and nut muffin
  • Hummus with carrot and celery sticks or wholegrain crackers