July 02, 2015

Q: My daughter eats a variety of foods and has a well-balanced diet. But I feel like she gets the majority of her nutrition in the second half of the day. I'm considering changing to 6 smaller meals as opposed to 3 meals with 2 snacks. Also, her pediatrician said to shoot for 20 oz of milk. I'd be interested in hearing how you manage mealtime so I can find a schedule that works for us. Thanks!

A: While there's no secret formula for how often a child should eat, a good rule of thumb is to pre-plan all meals and snacks throughout the day; this helps your child avoid a free-for-all when it comes to food. This can not only help you and your child connect by sharing a meal or snack time, but can provide your child with several opportunities to work in a variety of healthful foods and beverages—including fruits, vegetables, whole grains, low fat dairy (including milk and yogurt) and lean meats and beans (including nuts and seeds, poultry, eggs, and fish). Eating regularly throughout the day can also help your child stay energized and focused, and also prevents wide swings in blood sugar levels (blood sugar levels drop overnight while we sleep, and dip in between eating occasions during the day).

My recommendation is to plan for healthful breakfasts, lunches, and dinners, preferably shared with you and/or other family members. Plan for at least 2 snacks, mid-morning, and mid-afternoon. Each time your child eats, make sure to have respect for how much your child does or doesn’t eat, and allow him or her to stop when full. You will likely find his or her appetite to increase or decrease depending on growth (appetite often increases during a growth spurt). Over time, having planned meal times, and making sure to have all meals at a table (preferably in a kitchen or dining room) will set the stage for healthy habits for your child as well as the entire family.

As for the milk question, current Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend the equivalent of 2 cups of milk or milk products—preferably low fat or fat free—for kids aged 2 to 8; 3 cups a day for kids 9 and older.

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Answered by Elisa Zied