The top reason kids play up at meal times is that they aren’t all-that hungry. Snacking is an epidemic. Visit almost any playground and you are bound to see hoards of children feasting on Cheddar Bunnies, Veggie Stix, Pouches and Puffs. Our supermarkets are stocked full of convenience foods that are disguised as “healthy options” which desensitize taste buds, sanitize texture and can lead to growth and language delays.
The way humans regulate circadian rhythms is through regular meals and sleep. It’s important to have a strict eating schedule and stick to it so that your child’s body clock knows when to expect food. That way you can trust when kids are genuinely hungry versus when they are just bored or trying their luck for a tasty treat.
Before modern society had grocery stores full of fresh food and houses stocked full of a plethora of snacks people had to eat whatever and wherever they could find. It’s unnatural to communicate to the body that we can eat whenever we please. Our kids need boundaries around meal times and snacks to help them train their body when to eat and when to burn / conserve energy. Children who snack whenever they want learn that eating a meal is unnecessary because food will be handed out on-demand. When kids bellies are stuffed with snacks it’s no wonder they refuse to eat dinner, they’re just not that hungry. Filling up on empty calories causes kids to gorge on unhealthy foods to make up for their nutriental deficit. You can’t really control how much your child eats but you can control WHEN and WHAT they eat, use your power for good.
Set a clear schedule
So how do we know how much food our kids need? Every child is different and the amount of food they need at different times of the month, week, year is constantly changing so it can be difficult to judge how much to feed them and when. A consistent schedule will help provide firm guidelines to clarify those gray areas. Our job is to provide a well balanced variety of meals along with nutrient dense snacks at healthy intervals throughout the day.
But schedules can be daunting. A good schedule takes planning and discipline. A consistent schedule with clear boundaries also allows kids to learn that if they don’t eat their lunch it will be a few hours before they are offered food again. This will help them think twice and denying something new or refusing to eat anything but pizza. A good schedule also gives the digestive system a break. How does your body feel if you’ve been snacking all day?
Find a schedule that works for your family. We’ve always found that a 2 hr break between meals / snacks works best. Snack time ends two hours before the next meal.
- 7:30amish breakfast
- 9:30-10:30am snack window
- 12:30pm – lunch
- 2:30-3:30pm – snack window
- 5:30pm Dinner
- 7pm Bedtime Snack
If you have a “grazer” you may want to extend your snack window to 2 hrs to allow your child to get the energy they need throughout the day, but keeps snacks extra light before mealtimes – i.e. fruit / vegetables. Apples and peanut butter. Cucumbers and hummus. Keep it fresh and kids are less likely to overeat.
Remember you can not control how much your child eats but you can control WHEN and WHAT they eat. Cutting off the snack-a-thon can be very difficult. It may seem cruel to deny your kid when other children are snacking up a storm, but it is far more important to help your kids develop healthy eating habits. Be confident that you are offering them healthy food often enough for their bodies to thrive and grow. They will not starve, even if they do throw a fit or have a food strike at first.
If your child is in a growth spurt or hungrier than usual, better to move the meal time forward 30 mins or offer a piece of fruit or vegetables. If they are truly hungry this will take the edge off, if they are just wanting the social satisfaction of eating the urge to snack will pass.
Avoid packaged “snack foods” as much as possible, especially during the toddler years (1-3yr) when food habits are forming. Have you ever tried to have just one goldfish cracker or one piece of popcorn? It’s pretty much impossible and will likely lead to a tantrum. Packaged snack foods are insanely addictive and kids with eating problems tend to gorge on them to make up for lost calories. Just because you bought it at Whole Foods doesn’t mean it’s healthy. Check ingredients and be a savvy consumer. You know those Veggie Stix we’ve all bought them at some point (myself included)? Turns out they’re actually no healthier than a standard potato chip.
Another common food crutch is milk. There’s a lot of controversy around whether or not young children need milk in their diet. Milk can be a great source of calcium for kids, but when they rely too heavily on it they are most likely making up for a nutrient deficit. If kids aren’t getting enough calories from food, milk can be used as a proxy. A good friend recently told me that her 3 yr old was refusing to eat dinner in favor of his nightly bottle of milk. The problem is the milk doesn’t fill his belly the way a solid meal would so he is waking up at 4am for more milk. Kids who take in a large portion of their daily calories from milk are known as milkaholics. It’s incredibly common. Eve Reed, a pediatric nutritionist in Australia specializes in helping young children with food issues and her advice for milkaholics to eliminate bottles from the equation and keep offering healthy meals at 2-3 hour intervals. It may seem cruel, but it might be the only way to ensure that a toddler can get a balanced diet. If you want more info on this subject check out the full article from Eve Reed.
Also after dinner the kitchen is “closed” this helps avoid procrastination around bedtime or a midnight snack habit. If you need to have a post dinner snack include it in your schedule so that it’s a regular fixture and make it the same thing every time. We do a morning glory muffin or peanut butter & honey on a rice cake before bed.