We've all been there. In the car, in the grocery store or on a playdate, our toddler or young child asks (or whines) for a snack, sometimes only half an hour after a meal. When kids beg or whine for snacks or treats at random times, it may seem easiest to give in and immediately break out the crackers or fruit snacks. I see it all of the time - little ones saying "I'm huuunnggrryyy Mom! Can I have a snack??" And well-meaning parents promptly digging into the pockets, purses, or pantries for snacks (often of their kids choosing) to avoid a fight or meltdown.
The problem is, this common scenario puts the child in charge of eating times. And if random snack requests are met regularly, this can enable picky eating at meals. In order for kids to develop a healthy relationship with food and learn to regulate their internal hunger and fullness, food boundaries must be set--parents must be in charge of the what, when and where of feeding.
Just the other day, my five year-old son came into the kitchen as I was cleaning up from dinner (of which he ate well), and almost sub-consciously said "I'm hungry, Mom." As he said it, he looked like he was searching for something to do. I looked at him and said "Ben, you just ate dinner. I want to you really listen to your tummy and tell me if you're truly hungry." He stared off, clearly pondering what I had said. I jumped in again and said "I wonder if, instead of feeling hungry, you feel bored?" He looked at me and said "yes, I'm bored."
I realized then that what I had predicted about my son's random snack requests was true: most of the time, he was bored, not hungry. He had gotten into the habit of saying "I'm hungry," when really, he was just looking for something fun to do.
Up until the age of about three or four years old, parents don't have to worry much about kids "mindlessly eating," because babies' and toddlers' appetites are deprivation-driven. In other words, they eat when they're hungry and stop when they're full. Research shows, however, that at around the age four, environmental cues start to influence kids' eating behaviours. So, because my son was bored, and in the kitchen (seeing food), he would have likely eaten if given the chance. By setting specific meal and snack times, we are giving our kids the chance to feel true hunger, and eat until they are satisfied.
We offer meals and snacks regularly throughout the day--about every two-and-a-half to three hours--at times designated by me, not the kids. So, requests to eat beyond this stem from my kids either a) not filling their tummies enough at meal or snack time, or being bored and saying "I'm hungry" out of habit or simply for something to do. When discussing this with a mom friend of mine a couple of days ago, she said to me "I think my kids request random snacks because it's just something fun to do!"
Besides requesting snacks out of boredom, kids also often request snacks out of habit or association. As soon as your little one hops into the stroller, she gets a snack. This results in an association being formed between riding in the stroller and eating, regardless if she's truly hungry or not. Similarly, as soon as afternoon cartoons are turned on, she's given a bowl of goldfish crackers to munch on. The association that is formed is between television and food (you can see how this may not serve her well later...).
Having three young kids myself, I completely understand this reliance on snacks from time to time to keep the peace. And once in a while it's no big deal. But when food associations are formed, or when random snack requests are fulfilled regularly, we are teaching our kids to be mindless eaters, which is the opposite of what we want to do.
Here are 3 steps to handling random food requests:
1. Acknowledge the request:
If your child is "whining" for food (which is almost always the case with random snack requests), it's actually best not to react at all (until the whining stops that is). Amy McCready, author of the "Me Me Me Epidemic" and popular blog Positive Parenting Solutions writes in a blog post about whining "Times of whining, meltdowns and chaos are not places to have a level-headed conversation. So pick a calm moment when everyone’s relaxed – maybe over lunch or a snack – to talk about whining. Talk about the difference between a whiny voice and a normal voice, and how a whiny voice hurts your ears. Let your child know how you feel when he whines and let him know that you won’t respond when he whines – you’ll just simply walk away. When he uses a normal voice, you’ll be happy to talk to him."
When your child is not in melt-down mode, you can acknowledge his request by stopping whatever you're doing, kneeling down (so that you're at his level) and saying something like "it sounds like you would like to eat right now" or "I understand that you want a snack". I would steer away from acknowledging actual hunger (because it's hard to know if your child is actually physically hungry - he may just be bored or want something fun to do). If you have a hunch that he is requesting a snack because he's bored or wants something fun to do, you could initiate a conversation similar to the one I mentioned above between my son and I.
2. Explain why it's not time to eat right now, but another opportunity will come soon:
After acknowledging your child's snack request, you could empathize with him by saying "I know it's hard not getting what you want right when you want it" or "I know that those muffins look really yummy and you probably want to eat one right now" (let's say, if you've just baked muffins). Follow this up by explaining that even though it's not time to eat NOW, there will be another opportunity to eat soon. As soon as kids know that there is a future eating opportunity, the desperation to eat RIGHT NOW tends to dissipate. You are not saying "no" to the request, but instead saying that it's just not time yet.
3. Remind your child to eat until satisfied at mealtimes:
If your child didn't eat well at his previous meal, this would be a good opportunity to remind him to fill his tummy at the next meal so that he doesn't get really hungry soon after (because the kitchen will be closed afterwards). You could say something like "remember when you said that you were full after only one bite of your hamburger at lunch? This might be why you're feeling like you need a snack right now. Let's remember this at dinnertime tonight" (and then remind him again at dinner time).
When my child hardly touches a meal, I would first ask him some important questions that may encourage better eating, and then would usually say something like "that's fine if your tummy is full, but remember, the kitchen will be closed until breakfast time tomorrow, so make sure to fill your tummy now so that you're not hungry before bed" (if bedtime less than a couple of hours after dinner). With my five year-old, I talk in more detail about what "filling your tummy" means (it should be full, but not over-full or hurting), but with my two-year-old, I stick to "make sure your tummy is full." Young kids should stay at the table for at least 10-15 minutes (even if they are "done,") to allow family bonding time (and within this 10 or so minutes, kids often keep munching when the pressure is off!).
If you'd like more information on how to handle snack requests throughout the day, check out my fellow pediatric dietitian Jill Castle's recent posts: How to say no to your child's snack requests (nicely!) and Hungry or Hangry Child: What you can do to help.
For free advice on kids nutrition, picky eating, how to deal with mealtime battles and healthy recipes, visit my Facebook page where I post daily!