When my kids were very young, I was a walking snack bar. My handbag was stocked with little baggies of Goldfish crackers and cereal, and there was a perpetual blanket of crumbs on our minivan floor.
This arsenal of snacks was my defense against the dreaded Hunger Meltdown, the one that gets you looks from strangers at library story time, the one you swear could've been prevented with a well-timed graham cracker. To be honest, I also used snacks as a way to distract my kids when I need ten more minutes at Target or two more errands to run.
But at some point, I stopped with the snacks. I started carrying around a bare minimum snack of a mini box of raisins or an apple. I figured that if my kids were really, truly hungry, they would eat the raisins or apple if I offered it. If they turned it down, they probably weren't hungry—and could wait until we got home later for a healthy snack or meal. I noticed two things when I implemented this new plan: Not only was my van a lot cleaner, but my kids were also hungrier at mealtime.
Moral of the story: Hunger pangs aren't the enemy. In fact, it's important for kids to know what both hunger and fullness feel like. Listening to these cues tells us when to eat and when to stop. It's something children are born with, but a culture of overeating (and over-snacking) can dull those instincts over time.
Kids who are allowed to get hungry will also be more receptive at mealtime. Difficult behavior at the dinner table—like refusing previously liked foods and rejecting new ones—may be due to nibbling all day. A "picky" kid may actually just be a full one.
I'm not suggesting you withhold food from a hungry kid—and we all know there's a difference between garden-variety hunger and HANGER. But putting some boundaries in place that allow for natural periods of hunger and fullness is smart. For instance, if your bag looks like a vending machine like mine did, scale back. And avoid mindless eating in the car as much as possible (especially for very little ones, since choking is a greater risk).
Try to keep snacks at least 60-90 minutes from mealtime so your child works up a healthy appetite. If you try and it fails spectacularly, you may want to consider moving mealtime earlier if it's doable with your schedule. I've heard of parents who serve their kids a full dinner after school, then a light, healthy snack before bed. Having set snack times that your child can anticipate and depend on is wise too.
Lastly, talk to your kids about hunger and fullness. If they're always complaining of hunger, talk about how their body feels. Is it is a tummy-rumbling hunger? Are they simply craving something in particular that could wait until snack time or meal time? If they're just bored, can you help them find something to do? Here are some other common causes for always-hungry kids.
After all, can't we all agree that food just tastes better—and meal time is a lot more enjoyable—when you come to the table hungry? Being hungry and then nourished with healthy foods creates positive associations for your child that will last.
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author of The 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.