At some point over the summer, my 2-year-old started demanding a snack every day, at around 9 a.m. Despite the predictability of this request, it threw me off every time because we had usually finished breakfast at, oh, 8:35.
At 9 a.m., I wanted my children to be occupied with books or Magna-Tiles or spinning in circles as I cleared their breakfast plates, unloaded the dishwasher, and maybe even opened my laptop and tried to work for a bit. But it was then when my younger daughter, Beatrix, sensing my attention was no longer laser-focused on her, urgently needed a cookie bar. So I gave her one. And then I tried to get back to doing all of those things, until, 20 minutes later, she wanted a piece of cheese. Then another piece of cheese. Then some blueberries.
By 10:30, the time I had naïvely thought a morning snack “should” happen, she had finished three or four courses, and was ready for a cookie or five. By 11:45, she threw a tantrum for lunch until I threw an applesauce pouch at her. By the time I got lunch on the table at 11:58, no thanks, she was full. And this became our daily pattern for the better part of two months.
I have written extensively about our children’s relationship to food, and about snacking in particular. But by August, I had to admit I had lost the plot on snacks with this child. In the Before Time, we had the structure of school, work and being able to leave the house to help us determine when to eat and to do other things. Now, all the lines are blurred. And with many kids back to remote learning, that’s unlikely to change.
“My 6-year-old has eaten so many Cheez-Its, I guess I’m sending the owner’s children to college,” Emily Gardner, 43, a mother of two in Nitro, W.Va., told me when I asked parents to share their stories of snacking on Instagram. “There’s no sitting at the table for lunch anymore,” added Camie Manning, 34, a mother of two in Alcoa, Tenn. “There are just kids running around with pizza rolls.”
So how do we get back on track with better eating habits, without a clear end to pandemic life in sight?
Space out snacks with meals
First, know that it’s normal for kids to be snacking more at home. (Yes, still.) They may be self-soothing with food, which is not, in and of itself, an unhealthy thing to do. My 7-year-old daughter likes to eat M&Ms while she watches a show or reads graphic novels for her afternoon “quiet time,” and I love the comfort and pleasure she gets from this routine. Children may also be “more in tune with their hunger at home, without all the distractions and short meal breaks in the typical school day,” said Elizabeth Davenport, a dietitian in Alexandria, Va., the co-author of the blog Sunnyside Up Nutrition, about feeding families.
You only need to intervene if your child’s snacking has turned into the kind of all-day grazing pattern that replaces regular meals at the table. “We want kids feeling some gentle hunger before eating because this helps them self-regulate,” said Megan McNamee, a dietitian in Scottsdale, Ariz., and co-founder of Feeding Littles, a company that offers online courses for feeding babies and toddlers. “With grazing, they have this baseline level of not really hungry but not really full all day long, and can lose their hunger to eat with the family and try new foods. Plus food just tastes better when you’re hungry.”
For this reason, Davenport and McNamee agree that it’s more important to focus on when and where kids snack than what they snack on. You should never expect a child to go more than three or four hours without eating, and toddlers may need to eat every two hours, so plan to serve meals and snacks accordingly. “Think of this as a flexible routine, rather than a rigid schedule,” McNamee said. With older children, it can help to write out the schedule or show them on the clock when meals and snacks happen. With toddlers, talk in terms of activities: Eat breakfast, play outside, have snack, read books, have lunch.
Of course, kids may protest as you transition away from grazing, which is one reason not to shift both their eating schedule and food choices simultaneously. “Remember that structure doesn’t mean restriction,” Davenport said.
Let children know that they can eat as much as they want when a snack or meal is happening, and don’t balk at seconds or thirds. Kids snack the most in homes where parents were more restrictive about it, according to an analysis of 47 studies about food parenting practices published between 1980 and 2017. Offer their favorite foods alongside other foods that you would like them to eat, but don’t fuss about which they eat first or make them finish their fruit in order to earn the cookie.
“Kids are just like adults; they want what they can’t have,” explained Jill Castle, a dietitian and co-author of “Fearless Feeding.”
“Your goal is to raise kids who can walk past the M&M jar and sometimes say, ‘nah, not into it today.’ And sometimes say, ‘yup, today I want some!’ And not be triggered by either response.”
As kids get used to eating on a schedule, you can offer choices, Davenport said, like “would you like peanut butter and apples or cookies and milk?” Don’t stress if they pick the same snack every day. It’s normal for kids to go through phases of intensely loving certain foods; they will habituate and be ready to try something new in a few weeks. “Parents put so much pressure on themselves to serve something different for every single meal, and you just don’t have to do that,” Davenport said.
Make snacks a sit-down affair
The easiest way to make a snack schedule stick is to have clear ground rules around where snacks get eaten. This is the mistake I made when handing off that 9 a.m. cookie bar, which Beatrix would then eat as she danced around our house to the “Moana” soundtrack. It can also be a problem if kids are eating most meals or snacks in front of screens, because distraction makes it difficult for kids to tell when they’re getting full.
To correct our morning snack-athon, McNamee suggested moving Beatrix to two morning snacks at first, but making them both sit-down affairs. “You can change up the location; have one at the table, and one on a blanket on the floor of the living room,” she said. “But if she’s sitting and having a substantial mini-meal, she’ll feel more satisfied.” Then when she’s ready to leave the table, I can emphasize that we’re now done eating until our next meal.
McNamee also noted that kids tend to focus on eating better when an adult joins them. This may be unwelcome advice if you’re juggling your own work with remote learning or a general lack of child care right now. But if you can set aside small breaks in everyone’s Zoom schedules to sit together for snacks and lunch, you may find this eases your snacking stress and improves everyone’s moods. If you know that’s not an option, consider packing lunches or snacks ahead of time, so kids can help themselves. Or, for older children, have a designated drawer in the fridge and shelf on the pantry that they can reach for snacks.
“Then you can say, ‘grab yourself a yogurt and some Cheez-its and find a place to sit and have your snack,’” Davenport said. “This way, you’re still providing structure but giving them more responsibility. We’re all juggling so many roles right now — it makes sense to give kids a little more autonomy around food than you might otherwise.”
Virginia Sole-Smith is the author of The Eating Instinct: Food Culture, Body Image and Guilt in America, and co-host of the Comfort Food Podcast.