Help! My child only wants to snack all day long and refuses to eat meals! Here are some effective strategies for ending mealtime battles and raising healthy kids.
I must confess. I was the ultimate grazer growing up. I was obsessed with the typical snack foods, especially the savory ones, like chips, pretzels, crackers, etc. and nibbled on them all day long. No wonder why I wasn’t hungry for real meals!
Not only did these energy-dense snacks spoil my appetite, but I also felt this sense of guilt and found myself trying to “save” calories by skipping meals. Yup. I had a very unhealthy relationship with food, and it was miserable. I don’t want that for my child.
That’s why this topic is so dear to my heart. It is why I focus so much on laying the foundation for healthy eating habits from early on that will hopefully stick with my child for the rest of his life. I hope this post inspires you to join me in my mission and that it will save you from endless mealtime battles and power struggle.
There are so many layers to helping a child develop a healthy relationship with food. I want to dedicate this post to addressing snacking for young children.
What is structured eating?
Snacks can absolutely (and should) be a healthy part of a child’s diet. Their small stomachs coupled with their high-energy mean they need to be eating often. But there’s a difference between structured eating vs. grazing all day long.
My #1 tip! Always always fall back on the division of responsibility! We, as parents, control WHAT and WHEN food will be served. Therefore, set an eating schedule that works best for your family and stay consistent. You can be flexible but don’t want to be too loose.
Also, remember that every child is different. Mine is perfectly fine with 3 meals and one snack. Yours might need one in between each meal. Find a feeding structure that works for you. To learn about all the benefits of having a consistent and predictable eating schedule as well as our past and current schedules, click here.
Top 3 reasons why you might be constantly offering snacks:
Your child isn’t eating their meals and you’re worried they won’t get the nutrition they need to grow and thrive.”
Totally understandable! However, grazing all day long may be one of the main reasons why your child isn’t eating during mealtimes. And for fussy eaters, this can make things worse. If they don’t come to the table hungry, they’re less likely to try new/disliked foods or any food for that matter.
I know as parents, we want our kids to be fed. And fed well! But here’s a gentle yet powerful reminder. It’s OK to let them get hungry! In fact, it’s encouraged. That will be an incredible driving force in encouraging them to eat a full, nutritious meal.
Schedule meals and snacks at regular intervals throughout the day. Most toddlers need to eat 3 meals + 2-3 snacks spaced 2-3 hours apart (older children can go longer) so be sure to plan accordingly.
You need to keep them occupied to avoid meltdowns or boredom.”
In this case, food has become a source of distraction, which can lead to mindless eating. They’re not focusing on their food, which most likely will interfere with their innate ability to regulate their food intake and discourage them from listening to their own hunger/fullness cues. Your child may end up over or in some cases, under-eating.
Not to mention, they may start to associate food as a coping mechanism for dealing with various emotions, like boredom, frustration, and sadness.
What to do:
- Avoid on-the-go snacks as much as possible. That means no more eating in the car seat, stroller, etc. We all know how tempting it is to bust out a snack when things start going south! So set yourself up for success. Instead of turning your bag into a portable snack drawer, only carry 1-2 emergency snacks in your bag.
- When your child asks for a snack outside of the eating times, gently but firmly remind them that “we will eat soon.”
Life is so crazy busy!”
You oftentimes find yourself running around everywhere, and following a mealtime schedule and structure is so hard! So you abandon it altogether. This may be an easier solution in the moment, but in the long run, it will make it much more difficult to establish good eating habits.
Not to mention, eating whenever and wherever will inevitably send the message to your child that sitting down and eating together is not important.
What to do:
This is when time management becomes really important.
- Prioritize your eating schedule. Again, you don’t have to be super strict with it. Allow wiggle room and try to keep meals/snacks within a 30-minute time frame around the usual time.
- Whenever possible, offer snacks at the table to encourage mindful eating. If you’re on the go, try your best to put a pause in
actionto sit down and enjoy a snack together. And if you’re so busy that you can’t stop to make this happen, perhaps it’s time for you to re-evaluate your routine. Don’t be afraid to make changes to your eating schedule. For instance, perhaps moving up your dinner time and adding a bedtime snack may work better for your child and family.
- Plan ahead. Just like you plan for your meals, make a list of healthy snack options to enjoy throughout the week. No doubt, the crackers, granola bars, the cereals, Goldfish, etc. are essential for our sanity! But don’t rely on them solely.
- Meal prep. When you have some free time on your hands, slice up some veggies and fruits, hardboil some eggs, whip up simple dips, bake muffins, bread, etc.
- Start building a freezer stash of healthful snacks! When you bake, refrigerate some to enjoy during that week and freeze the rest.
- I’m sure all this sounds quite daunting, and yes! It is at first. But once you build it into your routine, meal planning and prepping will become like second nature. And you will reap the benefits by being able to sit down and enjoy a satisfying snack (and meal) together even on your busiest days.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for help. I like to spend a couple of hours in the kitchen over the weekend or whenever my husband is home to prep ahead. I ask him to keep him entertained while I do my thing and that’s a HUGE help. Or if you’re working, and your spouse or other family member is home, you can make a list of foods they can prep or leave them recipes that they can follow.
What to serve during snack times?
- Rethink snacks! Typical snack foods tend to be sweet and high in carbs which are very appealing to most children. It’s unrealistic to say no to serving these foods entirely, and I actually don’t recommend this! However, don’t let the crackers, cereals, etc. be the ONLY foods you serve. This will most likely lead to your child eating less of their meals to save room for these “special” foods. So Mix it up! And aim to serve the same kinds of foods you’d serve at mealtimes.
- Consider snacks as mini-meals. If your child doesn’t eat much during mealtimes, then here’s a great opportunity to fill in those nutritional gaps. For instance, if your child didn’t drink their milk, you can offer other calcium-rich sources like yogurt or cheese during snack time. If veggies get no love during lunch, they might be much more interested in enjoying them with a dip as an afternoon snack.
- Serve at least
2food groups. So protein/fat + fruits/veggies/starch. For example, instead of just orange, serve with nut butter or cheese. This will help keep them fuller and more satisfied until the next eating time. Snack times can also serve as a great opportunity for veggie exposure.
- Overnight oats or quinoa
- Yogurt parfait – with blueberries, grated carrots, and dried cereal
- Toasts – refer to
pictureabove for some fun combinations
- Sliced apples and cheese
- hard-boiled egg with steam roasted veggies and Goldfish
- Banana with almond butter
- beet hummus with red bell peppers, cucumber, and tortilla
- Cookie + milk or kefir
- Savory oatmeal with chopped zucchini and melted cheese
Whole graincrackers and carrots with hummus
- Graham crackers with strawberries and peanut butter
- A small portion of leftover dinner + chocolate
- Snack tray with an assortment of whatever you have on hand – cheese, veggies, fruit, avocado, beans, etc. It can be a random hodgepodge and your child will love it!
- tropical: milk + pineapple + coconut flakes + spinach
- Beets + strawberries + banana + milk + flax seeds + cinnamon
Did you spot the “fun” foods in the list? It’s all about balance and moderation. You don’t want to completely ban them, but they shouldn’t be your only go-to snacks either.
Create structure and boundaries around these, what I like to call, “sometimes” foods. And one of the best things you can do is to offer treats WITH other nutritious foods. Again, you get to decide what, when, and how often! Need more guidance on how to implement an effective treats policy? Check out this post – How to tame your child’s sugar cravings?
Also, be sure to pay attention to drinks. Milk and fruit juices are very filling. If your child is thirsty between meals, offer water. Limit juice to 6 ounces/day and milk to 16 ounces/day.
Here are some simple recipes you might be interested in making for your child and yourself!
- Pumpkin bean muffins
- Overnight oats or quinoa (+ 6 recipes)
- Egg-free Carrot Lentil Bars
- Spinach Sweet Potato Blender Muffins
- Apple Cinnamon Muffins
- Southwestern Oat Muffins
- My 1st e-cookbook – Baby Led Weaning Beginner Bites – Introducing Top Allergen Foods – has a ton of finger-friendly, freezer-friendly veggie-forward recipes that your baby, toddlers, and older children will enjoy!
I truly hope this post was helpful!! Happy Snacking!! 😉