Toddlers are notorious nibblers. Their small bellies mean they can’t eat a lot at one time—and their nonstop natures mean they’d rather grab food here and there while they’re playing than sit down at the table for a meal.
There’s nothing wrong with snacking. My kids both do it. And personally, I couldn’t get through the day without my trusty mid-morning almonds. But done the wrong way, snacking can actually sabotage your children’s eating, making them seem pickier than they are and causing a lot of unnecessary frustration at mealtime.
Here are five of the most common toddler snacking mistakes and ways to solve them (and trust me when I say that I’ve fallen victim to all of these mistakes in my day—and learned from it!).
Your child may prefer to munch nonstop, but you shouldn’t let her. Why? Because it wrecks the appetite, so she’ll never be hungry at mealtime. She’ll also never be receptive to new foods if she comes to the table with a full belly. It’s better to start working towards scheduled snack times, like mid-morning and mid-afternoon (and maybe before bed, depending on the timing of dinner and bedtime). Yes, this may be tricky at first with a toddler who is used to more frequent eating (and has no concept of time!). But stick with it—and remember that kids can mindlessly eat out of boredom just like grown-ups. If your child just ate and is asking for a snack, try distracting her with a book or a game and let her know that snack time is coming later.
So many parents tote around an arsenal of munchies for their toddlers when they’re out and about. But these foods aren’t just used for satisfying hunger. They’re also pulled out as a distraction when kids are fussy or bored, and that sets up a bad pattern of kids eating when they’re not hungry. It can also be dangerous due to choking risks for young kids riding in the car (and let’s face it, all those snacks make a gigantic mess in the minivan too!). It’s better to bring along just one or two simple snacks like a banana or a small container of yogurt. Pack a new library book or forgotten toy for distractions instead.
If your toddler is picking at her food at mealtime—even foods you know he loves—it’s possible he’s not hungry thanks to snacks. So try to avoid snacks in the 1-2 hours before a meal. Pre-dinner snacks were wrecking my son’s appetite for dinner until I switched to serving only veggies in the hour before the meal. That meant he had something to nibble on but was still hungry when dinner was ready (and if he skipped his veggies at the meal, I felt reassured that he just ate a serving or two already). If your toddler is truly ravenous before meals, consider shifting lunch and dinner earlier.
One of the more frustrating moments is when your toddler barely eats dinner but asks for a snack ten minutes later. If this is a chronic problem in your house, your toddler may be skipping dinner and “holding out” for preferred foods like pretzels or granola bars. We solved this in my house by saving those barely touched dinner plates and reheating them if hunger struck in the hour after the meal (we don’t present this as a punishment, simply a way we’re accommodating our kids’ hunger). If you’re fielding a lot of snack requests right after dinner, give that a try. You may also want to consider nixing that post-dinner snack completely and reminding kids at dinnertime that the meal is the last opportunity to eat before bed.
This goes hand in hand with kids holding out for snacks. So many foods marketed as snacks for kids are more like treats—so kids would rather eat them than boring ol’ meal foods. While it’s fine to serve those foods occasionally, most snacks should consist of the kinds of foods you serve at meals: veggies, fruit, protein-rich foods like eggs, milk, yogurt, and beans, and whole grains. That way, you’ll know that your child is getting nutrients she needs not just at meals but also with snacks.