Other than “Dada” and “Mama,” one of baby’s first words is often related to eating and wanting to fill that little belly! In fact, even before babies learn to say “baba” for breast or bottle, they may pump tiny fingers to sign for “milk” or simply reach out their little arms toward yummy food to signal “GIVE ME THAT!” As babies round the corner into the toddler years and still request food throughout the day, do your best to establish a regular mealtime and snacktime schedule. It’s tempting to respond to each request to eat by offering a few crackers or a sip of milk, but children who learn to graze throughout the day tend to stick with the same types of food and don’t always expand their variety to the vegetables and fresh foods encountered at mealtime.
The best feeding schedule for toddlers is the one that includes a secret sauce served with both snacks and mealtimes. The secret ingredient? It’s hunger. By spacing out meals and snacks into a predictable schedule, baby’s brain learns to signal the body when it’s time to eat, just like adults know when it’s lunchtime at the office. Our bodies feel hunger on a periodic schedule if we fill our stomachs about the same time every day.
The ideal schedule includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a small snack in between each meal. Remember to limit snacks to 1 tablespoon per year of age for toddlers. For example, a 2-year-old would get 2 tablespoons of snack along with water, unless there are special medical circumstances for more volume. A snack is just enough to tide them over till mealtime, when children learn to fill up on a wide variety of offerings throughout the week at breakfast, lunch and dinner. In other words, kids can always have more at meals, if they are still hungry. But with a snack, there are no seconds. Remember, meals = more; snacks = no seconds.
Here’s what a day of eating might look like. Keep in mind that this is a general example, not a prescriptive schedule.
When the days are longer and children stay up later, add a bedtime snack. This is an ideal time to include some protein and a nutritious drink other than water to ensure a good night’s sleep. But be careful that the bedtime snack doesn’t accidently become a second dinner.
It’s also tempting to make the end-of-day snack special, like ice cream or cookies and milk. Although the occasional treat is fun and certainly special, be sure to offer it just on occasion. When kids expect a treat shortly after dinnertime, they tend to skip the vegetables and healthy options at dinner in anticipation of dessert right before bedtime.
Now, let’s be real about scheduling. We are, after all, talking about toddlers, and they can be quite persistent about asking for food! Parent consistently by responding to your child’s requests away from snack-times and mealtimes by saying: “Yes, you’re getting hungry. We’ll have a snack right after we are done playing outside.” Or “I’m getting hungry too! It’s not eating time yet. Right now, it’s growing time. Let’s take the doggy for a walk to the park. When we get there, we’ll have a little snack before we swing.” For very young toddlers, keep your explanation shorter and simpler: “It’s playtime. Swing first, then snack.” All these options communicate growing times vs. eating times. They also confirm for your child that you understand that they’re getting hungry while reassuring them that food is coming soon.
A mealtime schedule teaches children to wait, which is a new skill for many toddlers. In today’s world of convenience and technology, where many things appear almost instantaneously, waiting can be hard! Help your little one understand that a little bit of hunger is a good thing and that some delicious food is on the way…right after we play.
Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP, is an international speaker on the topic of feeding babies, toddlers, and school-age kids. She is the co-author of the award-winning Raising a Healthy Happy Eater: A Stage-by-Stage Guide to Setting Your Child on the Path to Adventurous Eating (2015) and Baby Self-Feeding: Solutions for Introducing Purees and Solids to Create Lifelong Healthy Eating Habits (2016). The tips in her latest book, Adventures in Veggieland: Help Your Kids Learn to Love Vegetables with 100 Easy Activities and Recipes (2018) are based on the latest research and Melanie’s 20 years of success as a pediatric feeding therapist. Melanie’s advice has been shared in a variety of television and print media, including The New York Times, CNN.com, Huffington Post and Parents Magazine. Visit her at www.MelaniePotock.com for more articles, professional tips, and helpful videos to raise your adventurous eater!
The content provided in this article is intended for informational purposes only. It is not recommended as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment for specific medical conditions. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem without consulting a qualified healthcare professional. Always seek the advice of a qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical questions or concerns. See additional information.