It is a MYTH that children only need to eat 3 times a day. In fact, they should eat twice that much! Six times a day would be ideal. I can’t tell you how many “trainings” or blogs with advice to just “cut out the snacks” exist out there. No No No!!!!!! After 16-18 months of age, children (and adults) need to eat every 2.5-3 hours when awake (Toomey & Associates, Inc. 1990/2017).
Why are snacks important?
Well for one, children are constantly growing! They need the energy! And two, skipping snacks will NOT make them “hungrier at meals.” Especially if they are picky eaters or problem feeders. Stick with me here…we are going to move away from using the term snacks, while still eating 6 times a day.
Let’s talk about this for a minute. If you have a child who barely eats, why would you want to restrict food? You wouldn’t! You want to make it accessible. That said, you don’t want to allow your child to “graze” all day. Grazing by definition is allowing your child to eat sooner than every 2.5-3 hours. Research shows that children who graze tend to eat 50% FEWER calories than children who eat 6 smaller meals per day (Toomey, et. al.)
Meals vs. Snacks
Instead of calling them snacks, call them meals. Let’s think about why this makes sense. When we reference a meal versus a snack, we are alluding to the need to eat more calories at a meal as compared to a snack. Let’s change our thinking on this one. By having 6 MEALS per day, we can evenly divide our calories equally amongst the meals and aim to have 1 of each important category at each meal. So now, instead of snacking on cheddar bunnies and water (yes, I am guilty of this one with Lily!) we are going to provide 1 protein, 1 fruit/vegetable and 1 starch at EACH MEAL…6 times a day!
So how do you make this change?
- Call each eating experience a MEAL
- Stop letting your child “graze”
- Use a timer to alert you when 2.5-3 hours has passed (to remind you AND your child when to eat)
- Follow an interval schedule. For example, if you wake up at 8am, you start eating 20-30 minutes later by 8:30 and then you may eat at 11:30, 2:30, 5:30 and so on. Follow this and adjust to the time you/your child wakes up, rather than eating a set time each day.
Why is the interval schedule above important?
Some children have trained themselves to have no appetite. They didn’t do this on purpose, it’s just what has happened as a result of their picky eating or problem feeding. So what do you do? You have to re-condition their appetite so they experience hunger and the desire to eat again. In about 2 weeks of doing #4 listed above, they should regain their appetite if you are really a stickler about feeding them every 2.5-3 hours for 2 straight weeks!
Now the last tip is not going to make me popular but it is an important one to follow! You do NOT want to start with juice or sweets. I know so many of our kiddos are juice and chocoholics. Giving them these foods at the start of a meal cuts down their appetite window to 10 minutes and will make your child hungry again an hour later (sound familiar? It’s a sugar spike and doesn’t keep you satisfied for too long). What does this mean? Well, your child has about a 20-minute window for each meal. 20 minutes into a meal your child’s appetite will disappear so we generally recommended moving on from the meal around the 20-minute mark. Introducing sugar first, cuts your window in half. Forget about getting them to eat the harder foods if they have sugar first!