The Eating Routine that Will End Your Food Struggles
About Kids Eat in Color
Jennifer Anderson, MSPH, RDN
About Kids Eat in Color
Jennifer Anderson, MSPH, RDN
Maybe you’ve been in my shoes… I’m trying to do something, anything, to keep my 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 a eating schedule for your child. 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 routine 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 for children:
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 routine 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.
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.
My kids actually do get a bedtime snack in their eating 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.
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.
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 eating routine.
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?