Your child eats frequent snacks or seems to prefer to eat throughout the day and not at meals. It is common for parents to let children graze between meals. It is even more likely when a child is a highly selective eater.
Snacks are an important part of a child’s diet but can also create meal time difficulties when an unstructured approach is taken. A child that isn’t hungry at a meal or knows that a snack will be available soon after a meal may lack interest or eat very little.
While this may seem to give a poor eater more opportunities to meet their nutritional requirements, it hinders your child from responding to his internal hunger and satiety cues. In order to be adequately hungry at meals, your child needs a feeding schedule.
The step-by-step approach described will equip you with a plan and confidence to implement a meal and snack schedule.
The Truth About Grazing
A common reason why parents allow frequent snacks between meals is because their child doesn’t eat well at meals. It is a natural reaction to be concerned that your child isn’t eating enough and offer snacks to provide a chance to make up what was missed at the prior meal.
However, this approach creates a situation where your child isn’t hungry at meals. It also makes it more difficult to ensure that intake of key nutrients are met. Meals often include the most nutrient dense food options each day. Remembers, snacks serve to supplement meals, not to replace what wasn’t eaten at a meal.
Establishing a Snack Schedule
The number of snacks that a child needs depends on their age, but in general toddlers need 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day. Older children need 3 meals and 2 snacks.
If your child currently eats frequent snacks or is grazing, you can use this stepwise approach to transition to a structured snack schedule. You will find that appetite at meals will improve and you will have more quality time to sit down and eat with your child. This gives you the opportunity to model healthy food choices. It also gives your child the needed experience with recognizing and responding to hunger and satiety.
Step 1: Create a Snack Schedule
If you don’t have a structured schedule for when your child eats snacks in relation to meals, this is the first step in the transition. How to make the transition will be discussed in step 4.
Mealtimes should be consistent, so your child’s snacks can be planned between meals. If your meal times are currently highly variable, you will need to plan the times for these as well. Choose a snack time that is no less than 90 minutes before the meal to ensure adequate appetite for meals. Remember that snacks serve to supplement meals, not replace them.
It is best to write down your schedule and post it in the kitchen and keep a copy handy in your purse or wallet. You will likely need to reference it, take notes and make updates as you make the transition. It may be necessary to move the snack times by up to 30 minutes based on your individual child’s needs.
Step 2. Explain the Change and Involve Caregivers/Family Members
If your child is old enough, be sure to sit down and have a conversation, share the new schedule and tell him about the change. Answer questions and provide reassurance that he will have plenty of opportunities to eat and that the foods you’re serving aren’t changing, you’re just going to eat at specific times.
If there are other people that feel your child, be sure that you have a conversation and clearly explain the schedule so they can support your efforts. Consistency is important and will make the transition easier.
Step 3: Make Just One Change at a Time
If you are implementing structured snacks as part of an overall revamp including types of food you serve, consider making each change separately. Too much change can be hard for your child (and you) to manage. By first implementing the change to structured snacks, you are creating an ideal environment for your goal of offering more nutritious foods at snacks and meals. Your child will be arriving to meals and snacks with more appetite which is essential for meal time success.
Step 4: Make the Transition Gradual
For many families, a gradual transition is better accepted and creates less stress and protest by the child. By increasing the length of time between meals and snacks over a few days or up to 2 weeks, you can help to blunt the response to the change.
Determine the usual amount of time between your child’s snacks. If the amount of time is less than 30 minutes or your child is currently used to carrying around a snack container, start with 30 minutes as your snack interval. Otherwise, set this interval as your usual time between snacks, but not more than 90 minutes. By avoiding too long an interval to start, you reduce the likelihood of tantrums. You can always increase the time quickly if there is little objection.
After serving a meal at the scheduled time, set a timer. Be sure to explain to your child that when the timer is up, it will be snack time. If your child asks for a snack before the timer is up, remind him of the schedule and let him know how much longer until he will eat.
Be calm, persistent and consistent. There may be some objection to this new routine. To minimize, do not make the new interval too ambitious. You can gradually increase over a period of a few days.
At the end of the interval, offer a snack and when finished, reset the timer. Snack time should not last more than 15-20 minutes. Ideally, snacks should be eaten sitting down with digital devices/screens turned off.
Be sure to prompt your child to check in with his hunger/fullness cues to reinforce these skills. If your child is old enough to verbally communicate, provide additional food only after asking your child if he is hungry and remove the snack when he says he’s full. For younger children, look for signs he is full such as pushing food around or a lack of interest in food.
For the snack interval before a meal, be sure there is at least 60 minutes before the meal to promote appetite. As you lengthen your snack interval, you can transition to 1 or 2 snacks between meals and then to just 1 snack between meals.
Step 5: Evaluate Results and Adjust the Schedule (if needed)
After you have settled into a routine with your snack and meal schedule, now is the time to evaluate and make changes. While it may be tempting to make modifications within the first 2 weeks, try to give the new schedule time to become a routine so you can separate out normal issues with change, versus a true need to adjust the schedule.
You may need to change the time you’ve selected for meals or snacks. If your child is hungry before the meal, you may need to evaluate the composition of snacks and be sure you are including both protein and fat to provide sustained energy/fullness.
It may take a few adjustments to find a routine that works best for your child and family’s schedule. Keeping notes and recording your child’s response to changes will equip you with information to make decisions about how to best adjust the schedule.
A consistent structure with meals and snacks helps your child eat and gain skills to become a competent eater. While making the transition can seem a bit overwhelming if your child is currently grazing throughout the day or your meal schedule is a bit chaotic. However, taking a gradual approach and using information to make adjustment will ensure a schedule that works for your child. The stepwise approach provided will make the process easier.