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The Eating Routine that Will End Your Food Battles

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Maybe you’ve been in my shoes… I’m trying to do something. Anything to keep your child on a meal schedule. “Mommy, I’m hungry!” 8,000 times a day. My kids seem to be always hungry and never hungry for actual meals.

And certainly not hungry for vegetables.

What’s going on here? A few things. First, your child may be eating too often. This means that they are not hungry for a full meal of food. Second, your child may be eating mostly “snack food.” “Snack food” often doesn’t have enough protein and fat to keep kids going to the next meal in your meal schedule (if you have one).

Kids actually can eat too often and be hungry all the time!

Is this your situation? I encourage you to embrace your role as the parent and create your meal schedule. It’s your job to decide when food is offered at home and what food is offered.

I’m not suggesting you starve your child. In fact, for a lot of children, snacks make sense. I generally recommend giving your child an eating opportunity every 2.5-4 hours. This won’t work for every kid, but it works for a lot of kids.

So what’s your first job? Create an eating routine or meal schedule. Kids are unpredictable, so don’t expect to stick to this meal schedule religiously. That is, unless you love to follow schedules religiously. It’s okay to have a bit of flexibility if you would like it, though. Flexibility is essential in my family.

Here’s an example eating schedule.

6:30 AM Breakfast

9:00 AM Snack

12:30 PM Lunch

3:30 PM Snack

6:30 PM Dinner

In this routine, there are 5 eating opportunities, 3 meals and 2 snacks. Each is spaced 2.5-4 hours apart.

One benefit of having a meal schedule, is you and your child know when food is coming. That allows them to make decisions based on what their body needs. You can serve breakfast, and if your child is not hungry, your child knows they can wait for the 9:00 AM snack.

example of a 6 day meal schedule featuring colorful breakfast, lunch, dinner & 2 snack ideas for kids.

It is okay for your child to be hungry if they choose to skip a meal/snack.

We don’t want our kids thinking they must eat every time food is offered, if their body is not hungry. Instead, we want them to be confident that they can listen to their body. If they are hungry, they can eat. If they are not hungry, they can pass.

It’s up to us to give them that freedom. And we don’t have to worry that they will fall off the growth chart or waste away because they skipped one meal. When the child is hungry, they will eat again when food is offered.

What about bedtime? What if a child doesn’t eat anything for dinner?

Most kids don’t need food after dinner, if bedtime is coming soon. So, I don’t usually recommend one. If your policy is that you don’t serve a bedtime snack, then your child may want to test you out on that. If that’s the case, they may decide to go to bed without dinner. This is why it’s really important that you always serve at the very least 1 food that they like and feel very comfortable with during the dinner meal.

Fun fact: A lot of kids are really tired at the end of the day. They are actually not that hungry and their bodies may not need dinner. That is okay.

The reason for being consistent with the rules of your meal schedule is this: if your child doesn’t eat dinner, and you make them something else, even 3 times in a row, they will know they can get you to make them special food. That isn’t fair to you or to them.

What about kids who do need a bedtime snack?

My kids actually do get a bedtime snack in their meal schedule. That’s because I have one kid who will eat dinner and then still wake up in the middle of the night hungry. The other kid gets bedtime snack because his brother does. I notice he doesn’t always eat it, though.

If you include a bedtime snack in your meal schedule, keep it consistent and the food healthy and plain. This keeps kids from holding out on dinner, to get special food. We always have a bedtime snack. It’s just part of our routine. And the offerings often include fruits and veggies.

What to serve at meals and snacks

The most important thing to serve at all meals and snacks is balance. You want to make sure that there is a good source of fat and protein at every meal and snack. This helps your child feel full until the next meal or snack.

So, instead of serving a handful of goldfish crackers, serve goldfish crackers and a cheese stick. Instead of serving crackers, serve crackers with peanut butter. Instead of serving apples, serve apples with sunflower seed butter.

Better yet, serve leftovers from a different meal. Try to broaden their idea of the foods that are available during “snack”. For me, they are just smaller meals, although I let them eat as much as they want.

You get the idea.

You won’t force the child to eat this, but you can offer complete options. As they are eating a balanced meal or snack, they are able to feel full to the next eating opportunity. This cuts down on whining about being hungry.

Do kids have to have snacks?

No, not all kids need snacks. I know kids who slept 12-14 hours a night. That only left them 10-12 hours of being awake each day. They didn’t need a snack in their meal schedule!

Other kids sleep only 9-10 hours. Those kids are awake a lot longer and therefore, they may need several snacks included in their meal schedule.

What about if your child is super hangry?

My philosophy as a mom is “survival first.” I never let my kids get hungry when we are on an airplane, at an important event, or other things like that. I love having some shelf-stable snacks in my purse for moments like those, which are outside of our typical meal schedule.

Sometimes the kids just can’t make it to dinner. They are fighting and hurting each other. It’s clear they are “starving”. So I give them some veggies. Veggies before dinner won’t usually wreck their appetite, but it will help them make it to dinner. All depends on your situation though.

I often pack extra veggies in their school lunch boxes that they eat after school so that they aren’t crazy hangry by the time they get to the house. This is an easy strategy that has been working well for us.

Let me know in the comments what your eating routine looks like! Do you struggle with coming up with a meal schedule or do you need help coming up with ideas on what to feed your family?

Jennifer Anderson

Jennifer Anderson is a registered dietitian with a masters of science in public health from Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. She is the founder and CEO of Kids Eat In Color - the world’s leading resource for helping get kids on the path to eating better without the mealtime battles.

This Post Has 18 Comments

  1. Lindsey

    So we’re new to this type of eating. My son is 4 years old. I’m starting small by simply offering what he’s used to eating at designated meal and snack times (sometimes I add in something he doesn’t eat) and not allowing him to choose whatever he wants whenever he wants. The whole giving them the choice to be hungry until snack time usually doesn’t mean that my child isn’t hungry, but that he’s just being stubborn because he wants something other than what I’ve offered. This leads to basically a 1.5-2 hour tantrum until snack time. Are most kids fine and act normal when they don’t eat? Because it’s REALLY hard for me to stick to my guns and not “pressure” him to eat when he often (8-9 times out of 10) will get hangry, and then every little thing that doesn’t go his way sets off a tantrum and it’s just absolutely miserable. Any advice? Am I just doomed to deal with tantrums while we change the routine and he figures out how to eat enough for his body? He hates all the novelty things I’ve tried to buy to make it fun…..but at the same time, he’d rather do almost anything else than eat because eating isn’t fun. When I try to make it fun, he gets upset because it’s different than what he’s used to. ??‍♀️

  2. Kelly Conklin

    If I offer crackers, cheese, apples and carrots for snack, and my child eats all of the crackers and cheese but none of the apples and carrots and then requests more crackers, what do I do? Thanks!!!

  3. Ashley

    How long do you leave the food? My kids constantly get up from the table. They don’t just sit and eat. They could make the meals or snacks last 2-3 hours if I let them.

    1. Hannah

      I have the same problem. Little mouth full at a time, and runs off to play (or just run around in general!) between each bite.

  4. Kiran

    What kind of extra veggies do you pack as an after-school snack?

  5. Cecili

    This is SUPER helpful. I have a 12 month old. We struggled a lot due to touch/texture issues, but Jennifer, your advice along with your Instagram posts, these blogs and some small discussions with my pediatrician have SAVED me. I have thrown pressure out the window. If he doesn’t want to eat, then so be it. I’ll try again in 45 min. We’ve offered food and he has decided what and how much to eat. It has worked!! We’ve done for 2 months now. Some days I can’t believe he ate that much. It’s been a rollercoaster but definitely improving and improving. THANK YOU!!!

  6. Alivia

    My 4 year old is extremely picky and WILL NOT eat a lot of fruits or vegetables. She will eat the GoGoSqueez fruit and veggie applesauce but other than that, she won’t touch anything else. We have tried to offer them to her nonchalantly on her plate but she gets very agitated and wants them off and will not try them. Any suggestions?

    1. Alyssa

      exact same w/ my 4 year old she used to eat the trader joes broccoli snacks but now its gogo or nothing = she gets annoyed and ive been offering for months / years? it always gets wasted she wont try anything

  7. Eimear Walsh

    Similar to one poster Kelly above, if I put out a selection of crackers, vegetables and hummus all she eats is the crackers and sometimes hummus and looks for more. Do I say that thats all we have?

  8. ingeborg

    Hi, my problem is that my child only wants milk (formula) and bread, so anithing i put on his plate he wont eat it, and then he starv and cry all day asking for milk or bread, and he gets angry so the next meal he heats it and throw away the plate and finally i give up and i give him milk. the only way he eats fruits and other snaks like crakers or similar i is when he watches tv. i dont know what else to do

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