My child eats very little or nothing at mealtimes but then pesters for snacks all day! What should I do?
This is something I get asked a LOT. So here’s my comprehensive guide to how to approach and tackle snacking!
Should I deprive them of snacks altogether so they eat more at mealtimes?
Absolutely not! Children need snacks between meals to keep their blood sugar and mood on an even keel. An overly hungry child is often a difficult, grumpy child so this is likely to lead to worse, not better mealtimes!
So what should I do instead?
Give them snacks – but on your terms, not theirs! You must be 100% in control of both when and what their snacks are. Otherwise it’ll be extremely difficult to improve their mealtime eating.
Erm…I’m not sure that’s going to go down well!
If your child is used to getting the snacks of their choice on demand, yes, they may kick off big-time at first! Here’s how to respond. When they pester for a snack now, just calmly say It’ll be snack time a bit later. When they complain they want something different to what you’ve given them, just say That’s what we’re having for a snack today. Then don’t engage with further any further protests. If you consistently stick to these sentences (and never crumble and give in!), they will quickly accept that you are in charge of when and what snacks are dished out.
I know children seem to enjoy the instant gratification of getting what they want when they want (and a biscuit, for example, does give them that immediate burst of pleasure in their mouth and brain!) but overall children are much happier and more secure when they feel their parent is consistently (and kindly!) in charge.
So WHEN should I give them a snack?
Present your child with a substantial, healthy, snack mid-morning and mid-afternoon, halfway between breakfast and lunch, and lunch and dinner. This will make the lead-up to mealtimes calmer and more pleasant – but is far enough away from lunch and dinner to allow them to get them the right amount of hungry.
If you know they are extra hungry because they ate nothing or next-to-nothing at mealtime, it is fine to nudge the snack forward slightly and make it a little bigger, but there must be a distinct gap between mealtime and snack time (I recommend 45 minutes as an absolute minimum). You don’t want them to perceive the snack as something you’re jumping up and making them as a substitute or alternative to their lunch or dinner.
And WHAT should I give them for their snack?
I recommend a savoury carbohydrate for energy-giving calories and satisfaction (rice cakes, bread sticks, toast…) plus a fruit or raw veg. You could throw in a protein too (cubes of Cheddar? slice of ham? Dollop of hummus?). Vary the snack to expose them to a wider range of foods, making sure there is always one of their ‘reliable’ foods there. Don’t just give them their number one favourites every day! Exposure is key in the fight against fussy eating.
So should I completely avoid less healthy things like sweet foods or crisps for their snack?
Food should never be labelled ‘bad’ or made entirely offbounds (that could make those foods more attractive and create issues around food), but it’s best to save sweet and junkier foods as a treat when you’re out and about – like a piece of cake at a cafe, or a packet of crisps after swimming with friends. If you have a store of these type of foods at home, they will hanker after them. (If you know there’s a bar of chocolate in the cupboard, you want it, right? 😉 )
If you like this, you might like Is it okay to give my child a snack before bedtime if they don’t eat their dinner?