Does your child regularly proclaim that they are “starving” on the way home from daycare or after school? The snack requests can sometimes feel out of control.
The hour or so before dinner can be a challenging window of time when it comes to feeding children. Most often the concern is that parents want to avoid their kids “ruining their appetite” for dinner time, especially after putting together a delicious meal for the family. We’d rather not see that food go to waste!
I recognize that it is often easier to give in to the snack requests to avoid the impending “hangry” meltdown. As a pediatric dietitian and mom of 3, I can assure you that no family is immune to these pre-meal fiascos! But before you oblige your kids before-dinner snack request, here are a few things to consider to help diffuse these snack time struggles:
- Reflect on your family’s daily feeding routine.
Timing of meals, what to serve, and how much to serve are topics of discussion I have with parents all of the time to try to navigate mealtime struggles. Satter’s Division of Responsibility (sDOR) is a feeding philosophy that I highly recommend to families, because I know it works!
Ellen Satter, who is a registered dietitian, social worker and family therapist, created sDOR to help parents understand their role, and their children’s role when it comes to feeding and mealtimes.
- For babies, toddlers and school age children, parents are always responsible for determining what, where, and when food is served.
- Children are responsible for if they eat, and how much they eat.
With this approach in mind, it might be helpful to reflect on your family’s mealtime structure, with the understanding that it is your role to oversee when meals and snacks are offered. As we know, children benefit from the structure and boundaries we lay out for them, and meal/snack time are no different!
Staying relatively consistent with your family’s feeding schedule (I recommend every 2-3h) will help your child to understand that eating isn’t a “free-for-all” but something that happens at regular intervals. Creating structure helps kids to generate confidence when it comes to feeding their body, and self-regulating their hunger and fullness.
If you know that there will be a larger gap between afternoon snack (let’s say, at daycare) and dinner (at home), your child may actually NEED another snack to tide them over. Because when kids get too hungry, behaviour and mood can change, and they their appetite for dinner can actually be blunted (being overly hungry can eventually suppress overall appetite).
Your child may also be going through a growth spurt, or perhaps they were extra active at daycare or school. It sometimes takes a bit of “listening to your parental instincts” to decipher between a snack request stemming from habit or boredom vs. true physical hunger. You know your child best and can trust your own judgement on whether to serve a snack before supper is ready. Some ideas might be to set out a veggie tray with a few dips on the table, or giving your child a few of their favorite crackers to munch on “while we wait” for supper to be ready.
- Acknowledge their request for a snack and empathize.
Letting your child know that you acknowledge their want for something, is the first step to diffusing an emotionally-charged moment or meltdown. Try to wait until they are relatively calm, then acknowledge their request by saying “it sounds like you would like to eat right now” or “I understand you want a snack”.
Next, you want to empathize with their feelings. After acknowledging their requests, it is important to let them feel seen in the emotion they are experiencing. For example, you might say “It can be hard not getting what you want right when you want it” or “Granola bars are really yummy, you probably would like one right now”.
Take the step to explain that even though it’s not time to eat right now, the opportunity to eat is very soon (at supper or whatever meal/snack time is next). Try to avoid flat out saying “No” and use a sandwich effect type statement like “Yes, we can have a granola bar, at our next snack time that happens ____.” Or “Yes, it’s not time to eat yet, but there will be lots of food to choose from in 20 minutes, when supper is ready.”
- Remind them about mealtime boundaries.
Let your child know during a mealtime (such as supper) that “the kitchen will be closed” after the meal is over and “the kitchen will open up again at breakfast time” for example. This gives them the opportunity to decide to fill their tummies to the desired amount, knowing that no food will be offered again until the next morning.
If snack requests ensue, promptly after a mealtime has finished, gently remind them that “It is not snack time right now, the kitchen is closed, but we get to eat again at breakfast.”
If supper is finished more than two hours before bedtime, you may decide to offer a bed time snack as well. An extra snack may be especially important if your child has been running round outside or participated in evening activities, which tend to ramp up with the extra hours of sunlight we get throughout the summer months!
When snack requests feel out of control before dinnertime, it’s important to set boundaries and structure with mealtimes.