The Scoop on Food

3 Tips for Smarter Bedtime Snacks

Do kids need a nighttime nibble? A bedtime snack for kids can boost nutrition—or make picky eating worse. Here's how to do it right.

bedtime snack MSPhotographic/Shutterstock
Ah, the bedtime snack. For something so cozy-sounding, it obviously gives parents a lot of headaches—because as a dietitian, I get asked about it a lot. And as a parent, I've gone back and forth on just what to do. Here's what I've learned over the years about the bedtime snack.

1. It shouldn't be an escape route from dinner: This is especially important when kids are younger, and bedtime may be only an hour or two after dinner. Some kids may use the bedtime snack as a way out of a dinner they're not wild about. If dinner isn't something they love (or even a new food or new dish they're uncertain about) they know they'll get yogurt or graham crackers in an hour, so why bother? This will make your child seem picky at the dinner table—and drive you crazy.

Instead: At dinner, be sure there are always foods on the table your child likes. So if she doesn't like the main dish, she can have a helping of the veggie or other side items. Also, be sure to serve "meal foods" at snack time (like fruits, vegetables, and whole grains) way more often than "fun foods" (like granola bars and gummy fruit snacks). Another technique to consider: When my son went on a dinner strike as a preschooler, we started saving his plate and offering it to him later before bed. It wasn't a punishment—simply a way to provide him with dinner at a time he may be hungrier. At first, he didn't want his leftover dinner (because he was holding out for something better!). But soon enough, he was gladly scarfing down his spaghetti or stir-fry, just an hour or two after the rest of us (read more about that strategy).

2. It shouldn't be a sugar bomb: Kids' diets are already so laden with added sugar, and a sugary snack may be an incentive for your child to skimp at dinner.

Instead: Look at your child's day and see where the gaps were. Did she skip fruit at lunch? Offer a banana. Did she pass up veggies at dinner? Offer some baby carrots or salsa with baked chips. Were whole grains missing today? Offer a small slice of whole grain toast with a smear of nut butter.

3. It shouldn't be a stalling tactic: Some kids may not even be hungry for a snack—but they'd really like another 15 minutes with Mom and Dad! So look at your child's eating schedule and see if a bedtime snack is justified. If dinner is at 6pm and bedtime is at 7pm, a snack probably doesn't make sense.

Instead: If you decide to do a bedtime snack, plan for it so it won't interfere with the bedtime process. And always give your child the option (so she's not eating when she's not hungry)—maybe a snack or an extra story? Set a time for the snack and give your child a couple of nutritious choices.

Do you give your kids a bedtime snack?

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author ofThe Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.