Many toddlers are world-class snackers, preferring to nibble all day on the go instead of sitting down at the table for a square meal. In fact, we have a photo of my younger son at age two, literally scaling the kitchen pantry like a rock wall to fetch a snack.
As a dietitian (and snacker!), I understand that snacks can be a healthy addition to the day, especially for toddlers whose little bellies can't hold a lot of food at one time. But it's also easy for snacking to get out of hand at this age, and that can lead to a lot of angst at mealtime. Here are some common mistakes to avoid with your toddler:
Toddlers who snack all day won't be hungry at mealtime, much less receptive to trying new foods. It can also set up a bad habit of mindless eating, which is linked to overeating in adults.
Instead: Have scheduled snack times, like mid-morning and mid-afternoon. Asking your toddler to wait for her snack may be hard at first if she's used to snacking whenever she wants. But by sticking to dependable meal and snack times, she'll feel reassured that there are plenty of opportunities to eat.
I used to carry around an arsenal of munchies when I was on the go with my kids. But too often, I used these foods to distract or occupy my kids when they were bored. Not only does this create a huge mess in the car and stroller, but it also means kids are never really focusing on their food, so they can't listen to their internal cues of hunger and fullness. (Eating in the car can also be dangerous for young kids due to choking risks.)
Instead: Carry one or two small and easy snacks, like a banana or small container of whole grain crackers, in case hunger strikes while you're out. I started carrying tiny boxes of raisins. They would do the trick in a pinch if my kids were really hungry, but they weren't appealing enough to eat out of sheer boredom. Keep a book or small toy in your bag for distractions when you need to buy time.
It's maddening with your toddler comes to the table and doesn't want to eat. Sure, many kids this age enter into a "picky" phase, but make sure snacking isn't to blame. Snacking before mealtime can dull their appetite—and snacks after mealtime may sabotage dinnertime too if your toddler holds out for foods like pretzels or fruit gummies.
Instead: Avoid snacks in the hour before meals. If your toddler's hunger doesn't align with your mealtimes, consider moving meals earlier or serving your child a portion of the meal (like the veggies) while you finish prepping.
Most snack foods marketed to kids are chockfull of white flour, salt, sugar, and additives like synthetic dyes and preservatives. It's okay to have those foods sometimes, but kids shouldn't learn to associate "snack" with "treat" (and most of these foods don't pack the nutrients kids need the most, like fiber, calcium, and iron).
Instead: Most snacks should be made up of the same kinds of foods you serve at mealtime, like fresh veggies and fruit, whole grains like crackers and bread, and protein foods like hard-boiled eggs and dairy.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is an author, educator, and mom of two who blogs about feeding kids and staying sane at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on the book Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.