The Scoop on Food

Are You Making This Common Toddler Feeding Mistake?

Would you like to know a number one secret to happy mealtimes? Hint: this most common feeding mistake has nothing to do with what you do at meals.

Snacking on yogurt
Would you like to know a number one secret to happy mealtimes? The most common feeding mistake that ruins dinner for everyone? Just one change that will help your child eat better?

Of course, not all feeding problems are equal. Like anything else in life, they come in different levels of complexities that may require anything from a simple tweak to a comprehensive assessment and intervention by a team of specialists.

But without fixing this feeding mistake things around dinner table rarely get better. It is a foundation of good feeding strategy and, consequently, better eating habits in a child.

And it has little to do with what happens at mealtimes or what is served for dinner. Curious? I bet you are. Here it is: structure in snacks.

There are many reasons parents allow kids graze all day long. From our crazy busy life where eating happens on the go to a real fear that a child will not get enough food to grow and thrive otherwise, grazing has become a new "normal" of child feeding.

But even small kids, although their tummies are tiny, do not need to be snacking all the time, even on healthy foods like fruits and vegetables. Toddlers are capable of waiting 2-3 hours between meals and snacks and preschoolers and school age kids can go 3-4 hours without eating.

Here is an example of a typical 2 year old who is allowed to graze on "healthier" snacks throughout the day. At first, it looks like the child ate barely anything, but when we do the calculations, we see that he is getting so many calories from small snacks throughout the day that it is enough even without eating any lunch or dinner! Keep in mind that most 2 year olds need around 1000 calories per day.

  • 6:30am: 8 oz whole milk - 160 calories
  • 8:30am: 1/2 cup strawberries and 1/2 croissant - 140 calories
  • 10am: 1/2 cup apple sauce in a pouch on a way to swimming class - 50 calories
  • 11:30am: 1oz small pack of fruit snacks at the grocery store to distract child while mom is shopping - 105 calories
  • 12:30pm: Not interested in lunch
  • 12:45pm: A fruit and vegetable pouch (since lunch left untouched) - 80 calories
  • 1pm: 8 oz of milk before nap - 160 calories
  • 3pm: 1 oz of cheerios and 1/3 apple for snack at a playdate- 140 calories
  • 5pm: Starving on the way home from the playdate, mom gives another apple sauce pouch - 50 calories
  • 6pm: Not interested in dinner
  • 7pm: 8oz bottle of whole milk before bed - 160 calories
  • Total calories: 1045

As you can see, the child who does not "seem" to eat anything, in fact eats enough to meet his calorie needs. Pressuring him to eat at mealtimes will likely lead to stressful meals and even less interest in eating the meals parents prepare. And although he is getting the calories for proper growth, he is missing out on quality family time at mealtimes and exposure to the "grown-up" foods he is expected to learn to eat. Besides, his parents may be worried by his constant begging for packaged snacks and lack of interest in more nutritious chicken and broccoli they serve for dinner.

Solution?

  1. Schedule snack times. To take the first step, make a mental note of the time between meals when your child seems to be starving and plan a (preferably) sit-down snack for this time. You may need to serve 2-3 snacks per day, depending on the child's age. Do not wait until your child asks for a snack. Have it planned in advance and remind your child when it will be coming.
  2. Serve at least two food groups for a snack. Just a pouch of apple sauce or a bowl of crackers may not be filling enough to help the child "last" till next meal. So expect begging for another snack half an hour later. Instead, add some fat and/or protein for more substance. Examples are: apple puree and a slice of cheese, crackers with almond butter, or bread with butter.
  3. Watch the milk. It is very filling. Did you know that one 8 oz serving of milk provides the same number of calories as 2 eggs? Schedule milk for snacks or meals, instead of letting your child sip on it in between and limit to 2-3 servings.
  4. Avoid using food for distraction like giving snacks when kids get bored or wiggly. This is a good tip for kids (and adults) of all ages, helping them develop a healthy relationship with food and not use eating to soothe emotions.

Done right, snacks will help children meet their nutritional needs and have the patience to wait for main meals with the family. Done wrong, they may ruin the mealtime experience for everyone and affect nutrition. Think about structure to avoid this feeding mistake and enjoy the convenience and flavor of snacks without compromising eating at main meals.

Natalia Stasenko MS, RD is a pediatric dietitian based in London and New York. Mom of three, she is passionate about the science and art of feeding kids of all ages. When not writing, teaching online feeding classes, or consulting, she is most likely in the kitchen cooking and eating with her family. Follow Natalia on Twitter and download her guide on Smart Snacks That Help Kids Eat Dinner.

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Image: Child snacking on yogurt via Shutterstock