The Scoop on Food

Are Snacks Making Your Kids Picky?

How between-meal nibbling can make your kids seem pickier than they are.

kid reaching for cookies Y Photo Studio/Shutterstock
I talk to a lot of parents who say their kids are picky eaters. I can relate: Like most kids, mine have been known to refuse a new recipe or turn up their noses at foods they once loved.

These kinds of behaviors are often normal parts of development and tend to fade as kids get into their elementary school years. But they can still be frustrating. Really, really frustrating. And they can cause a lot of stress and turmoil at the dinner table for families.

But what if I told you that your picky eater might not actually be as picky as you think? Sometimes there's a hidden culprit—something that can make kids appear to be more finicky than they are. The culprit: Snacking.

What's the problem with snacking?

When kids have been nibbling all day on a buffet of snacks, they can't come to the table hungry and receptive to new foods. Snacking can blunt the appetite, so kids never actually feel hungry. It might not be that your child is stubborn and picky. She may just be full.

When kids are fed "fun" snacks like animal-shaped graham crackers and gummy fruit snacks, dinner foods don't seem very fun and appealing in comparison.

When kids are munching on the go—bites here and there as they run around the playground, get in and out of the car, or cruise in their strollers—it's no wonder they're not willing to sit at the table and eat.

I'm not saying you should ban snacks. For most kids (especially young kids with little tummies) snacks are a helpful way to handle hunger between meals and add nutrition to the day. Try these strategies:

  • Establish set snack times (for example, 10am and 3pm). For many kids, that really helps control nibbling and build hunger for meals.
  • At most snacks, serve the same kinds of foods you'd serve at meals, like fresh fruits and veggies, meats, and whole grains. "Fun" snacks are okay, but shouldn't be what's served everyday.
  • Avoid serving snacks within 1-2 hours of mealtime (here's what I do if my kids ask me for a snack in the hour before dinner—it works brilliantly!).
  • Watch out for mindless munching. Kids can nibble out of boredom, just like grown-ups do. If you think your child is asking for a snack because she's bored, redirect her to a book or game—and remind her that a snack or meal is coming soon.

Once you've got snacking reigned in, you'll probably find that your child is hungrier at meals—and more willing to eat what you're serving. It may not happen overnight, but stay the course. You may just find that your picky eater—yes, the one making you crazy every night at the dinner table—isn't really that picky after all.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.