Kids health

Why letting kids graze is a recipe for disaster

This kids’ dietitian says unstructured snacking contributes to picky eating, mealtime power struggles and even poor nutrition.

Snacks are an important part of kids’ diets. Kids have small stomachs, so they need more opportunities to eat throughout the day than adults do. But without boundaries or structure, snacking can easily spin out of control—creating picky eating habits, mealtime power struggles and nutritional issues.

As a mom myself, I know how easy it is to give in to random snack requests, especially when kids aren’t eating well at meals (or when you simply need a distraction in the checkout line). But as a pediatric dietitian, I know that establishing structure around snacks is essential for happy mealtimes, and raising healthy kids.

In fact, one of the first questions I ask parents of picky eaters in my nutrition counselling practice is “How is snack time structured in your house?” Often, there’s no structure at all—the kids are deciding when and where snacks are served (which should really be up to the parents). When a healthy snack structure is established, mealtimes become less stressful for everyone because it’s more likely that kids will come to the table hungry and ready to eat, and there aren’t hundreds of snack requests all day long.

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How my picky eater became an adventurous foodie

How often should kids be snacking?
Young kids should have at least two hours between eating opportunities, to have the chance to build an appetite. A typical schedule for a toddler or young child might be as follows:

7 a.m. Breakfast
10 a.m. Snack
12:30 p.m. Lunch
3:30 p.m. Snack
6 p.m. Supper

If bedtime is more than two hours after supper, a small bedtime snack can be offered.

What is considered a healthy snack?
Snacks not only help keep energy levels up throughout the day, but they also serve to fill nutritional gaps. That’s why it’s important to make sure that snack foods are nutrient-dense, with a focus on whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grains and protein-rich foods.

Examples of healthy snacks:

  • Sliced apple with cheese
  • Greek yogurt with berries and chia seeds sprinkled on top
  • Veggies with hummus and a few whole grain crackers
  • Homemade muffin with a glass of milk
  • Celery spears with natural peanut butter and raisins

Offering lots of variety is important too, not only for proper nutrition, but also to avoid the predictable snack trap: If kids are constantly offered their most-loved two or three snacks (let’s say, yogurt and bananas), they tend to hold out for their snacks and not eat as well at meals, knowing that they’ll be able to fill up on their favourites later.

Popular processed snack foods such as kid’s fish crackers, fruit-flavoured gummy snacks and cookies are often high in sugar and lack nutrition. In most cases, these types of “snacks” are actually treats. If served regularly, they fill precious tummy space and contribute to unhealthy eating habits. Instead, serve them occasionally and in small amounts to teach balance and fun.

Parents should decide when it’s snack time, not kids
It’s important for parents to decide what, when and where food is served, including snacks. Kids typically prefer snacks over meals, so if given the chance, they will ask for snacks all day long. Parents are often left scrambling for snacks several times a day, only to battle it out at mealtimes. This becomes even more challenging for parents of picky eaters, whose kids are already wary of new or unfamiliar foods to begin with. In other words, excessive snacking can actually prevent kids from widening their palates at mealtime, and learning to love a variety of foods.

Instead, set boundaries around eating times, and establish a snack routine that is relatively predictable every day. This helps kids self-regulate—eating enough to fill their tummies at mealtimes and being able to go two to three hours without eating again.

Offer snacks for the right reason
Snacks are an easy way to solve tricky parenting situations. They can soothe a cranky toddler, distract a whining child in doctor’s office or coerce a crying preschooler into behaving. But these aren’t the right reasons to offer and snack, and they can lead to a negative relationship with food or disordered eating habits later. As easy as it is to grab a package of fish-shaped crackers from your purse when your tot is upset, try to resist. Reserve snacks for designated snack times and for physical nourishment.

Let kids decide if and how much
Although parents should be the ones who determine when snacks are served, it’s important to let kids decide if and how much they eat. Kids’ eating patterns can be erratic and change from day to day depending on their age, whether they’re going through a growth spurt and depending on their activity level. For the most part, kids will eat what they need and leave the rest, or they’ll ask for more if they’re still hungry.

How to end the “graze craze”
When kids ask for a snack at a non-snack time, I coach parents to let their kids know that they are heard and understood by saying, “I understand that you want a snack right now, but the kitchen is closed. You will have another chance to eat in two hours when it is snack time. What would like to do until then?”

Resistance is almost inevitable. But kids are resilient and will adapt pretty quickly (some quicker than others) to changes in routine around meals and snacks. Change can happen with repetition, empathy and clear instruction. A new routine will take at least a week to become established. Patience is key.

Read more:
10 easy recipes for kids
6 ways to get your picky eater to try new foods