Snacks and toddlers seem to go hand-in-hand. Most parents try to make sure snacks are available to their kiddos whenever they ask for them to avoid another meltdown — the last thing they want is their little one getting hangry on top of their other extreme emotions. But should you set a routine snack time for your toddler, have bites readily available, or go by your child's own cues?
“I think snacking is a very important part of a child’s day. For one, it provides additional nutrients and calories. For little bellies, meals may not be so robust and powerhouse snacks can help round out the diet,” Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, a registered dietician/nutritionist and pediatric nutrition expert tells Romper. “Children also thrive on routines,” she says, and having a routine snack time helps kids recognize their own hunger cues throughout the day. “If allowed to graze all day, they would never actually notice when their bellies were telling them ‘feed me.'”
Dr. Daniel S. Ganjian, a pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, says, "When your child's body is on a schedule, their body starts anticipating the food. As a result, hormones are sent throughout their body to get it ready for a meal. They'll be hungry and eat their snack happily."
And it could even help prevent picky eating, he says, because one contributing factor to picky eating is not waiting for your child to be "sufficiently hungry."
On the flip side, some pediatricians don't recommend scheduling a designated snack time. Dr. Gina Posner, a board certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California, tells Romper that she isn’t a huge fan of set times for snacking because then you can get into the habit of giving the child food when they may not be hungry. “That teaches kids to not listen to their bodies and instead watch the time,” she says. She suggests simply waiting until your kid is hungry to give them a snack.
As for when and what they should be eating, children between 1 and 4 years old may need up to three meals and three snacks daily, says Makhoff-Cohen. "Offer a snack a few hours after a meal ends and about 1.5 hours before the next meal." Healthy snacks to give your child in between meals include a protein (eggs, nuts, yogurt, beans, or cheese), a healthy fat (like avocado or nut butters), and fiber (berries, oatmeal, high-fiber crackers or cereal, a banana, lentils or beans), she says.
And remember, all children are different. Some are snackers and others simply aren't. Introducing a new snack routine might be hard for them to adjust to, warns Ganjian, so give them two weeks to adjust before you decide whether or not you should stick to it longterm.
Deborah Malkoff-Cohen, registered dietician/nutritionist and pediatric nutrition expert
Dr. Daniel S. Ganjian, pediatrician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California
Dr. Gina Posner board-certified pediatrician at MemorialCare Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California