Sometimes, it’s hard to figure out where a preschooler stands when it comes to food. They don’t eat when we serve them dinner and then they want a snack at bedtime. They may eat dinner every night for seven nights in a row and then not eat dinner again for two weeks. They may just want to graze all day long and not eat any meals at all. It can drive a parent insane. But is this a problem, and how bad is snacking? Here are some nutritional guidelines for young children that should be able to help answer those questions.
First off, it’s not a problem and is part of the typical cycle that young children go through. But if you have concerns, be sure to call your pediatrician and ask for their advice. And as for snacking, it’s actually a very good thing, and should be encouraged in the right manner.
In truth, preschoolers are little guys, so to expect them to be able to eat a large meal and then be satisfied until the next is just unrealistic. Their tummies are small and their energy level is high. So snacking makes a lot of sense for these little kiddos. Snacking, done the right way, can provide additional sources of much needed vitamins and nutrients. The key is to find the right combination of meals and snacks, to be flexible, and to have a list of healthy snacks that will help kids with their energy, growth and hunger management.
The Institute of Food and Agricultural Sciences at the University of Florida outlines the following snacking strategies for young children:
One of the keys to promoting successful and healthy snacking in children is to be prepared. Following these tips will help you provide appropriate snacks to your child at the appropriate times and places (USDA, “Daily Food Plan,” n.d.):
- Snacks should not replace a meal, so avoid serving large snacks. Small portions are especially important for those occasional snacks that contain lots of added sugars and are low in nutrients.
- Serve regular meals and snacks every three to four hours. Allowing adequate time between meals and snacks will ensure that children are not too full to eat their meals. Structured meals and snacks also will keep kids from eating out of boredom. Although schedules are helpful, always listen to your child to allow him to recognize when he is hungry or full.
- Avoid using food as a reward or a way to calm an upset child. Also avoid using treats such as cookies or candy to make up for a meal not eaten.
- Be prepared by having healthy snacks on hand to make it easier for your child to make smart snack choices. Buying snacks from a vending machine or grabbing a bag of chips or cookies is usually an unhealthy temptation for families on the go.
- Not all snacks are appropriate for everyone. Always keep in mind food allergies and potential choking hazards when planning snacks.
One last piece of advice. Nothing can be more fun than sitting down with your little one and having a mid-day snack, so be sure to take the time to enjoy those moments as well. Snack it up!