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How to Solve Your Toddler Mealtime Battles With Snacks

How to Solve Your Toddler Mealtime Battles With Snacks

By Amalah

Dear Amy,

We have followed the Ellyn Satter book rules more or less from the start with our now three year old at dinner. I will not short order cook, and as a family we value sitting at the dinner table together every night. Etc.

Here’s the thing. Our three year old is ON TO US. And so he eats a big breakfast, a morning snack at school, an enormous lunch, a glass of milk or water after nap…and no dinner. Two bites if we are lucky.

This is his choice. Fine. I won’t play his power games. I provide the food, he decides whether or not to eat it. But here’s the thing — I control and cook various things for dinner. I mix it up. Every meal is reasonable — I’m not trying to serve him things that no three year old would eat. He pretends not to like spaghetti (liar) or hummus (scarfs it at school) or whatever, but there’s always something on the plate he would have happily eaten as a two year old. There’s plenty of variety and meals are healthy and balanced (not perfectly, I’m no saint, and we have takeout at least once a week, but we try).

The real problem is that this has been going on for months, with no end in sight, and there are two reasons why I feel like something has to give.

First, he now is really hungry by bedtime (7:30 pm). We know this because 2-3 nights a week he will call for us to help him go potty ten minutes after lights out because his tummy hurts. I’m 90% sure this is actually hunger. He’s also a MONSTER when he wakes up in the morning and needs breakfast ASAP. We can deal if he sleeps until it’s time to wake up, but sometimes he wakes up hungry at 5am and, well, I have a baby who still nurses in the middle of the night. I can’t make a toddler breakfast at 5am. I just can’t.

Second, his babysitter feeds him lunch, and I can’t control how that goes. I’ve tried. Please take on faith that she’s an excellent babysitter, the pros outweigh the cons, and after many attempts I know I can’t change this. So for lunch he has either a PB&J or a grilled cheese sandwich, as much of a vegetable serving as she can bribe him into (and it’s always steamed mushy veggies), and as much fruit as he wants (usually second helping of fruit is the bribe for the vegetable). She also will give him a couple bites of her lunch, which is always a frozen meal of the highly processed kind, usually drenched with fake cheese.

Because he doesn’t eat dinner, he eats most of his daily calories at lunch — sometimes he’ll have a second sandwich, he always has multiple servings of fruit, and sometimes he’ll ask for a cheese stick after he’s eaten everything else. Because there’s no variety to his lunch, and it’s not always as balanced as I’d like, I’m pretty sure he’s turning into exactly the kind of picky child following the Satter method is supposed to avoid. And I think bedtime (or, more accurately, the 45 minutes following bedtime when he’s not actually asleep) would be smoother if he ate more food at dinner.

So what do we do? I don’t want to give in on dinner, I don’t know how to fix lunch. The only thing I can think of is trying to give him “dinner” in the form of a healthy snack as soon as I get home from work, when the stakes are lower, and then still have him sit with us for family dinner. But I don’t have time to make that snack nutritionally varied/successful/whatever while also cooking dinner to be served 80 minutes later (it would have to be yogurt or hummus, basically).

For what it’s worth, at his three year old checkup last summer, when this was already a problem (though I still had hope it was going to be a quick phase), his doctor told us just to ignore it — he’s normal height, on the skinny side, not starving himself, developing normally. But. STILL.

Anyway. Halp. Thanks.

-Tired of This Three Year Old Nonsense Already, And Only Halfway to Four

PS I drafted this before the latest Advice Smackdown, on a very similar subject, went up…but I’m sending anyway because, well, THREE YEAR OLDS MAN.

Add More Snacks (Trust Me)

Add at least one more planned snacktime, pre- or post-dinner. BOOM. Problem solved.

And this comes straight from Ellyn Satter, by the way. PLANNED snacks, not handouts, spaced at regular intervals between meals so your toddler isn’t going more than two or three hours without eating something. (Which your son definitely is, in the later part of his day.) And yes, you can have a snacktime scheduled in the post-dinner pre-bedtime window. It’s NOT dessert, it’s NOT immediate, and it happens when YOU say it does, not because your child is whining and begging for food five minutes after you gave up on him eating any dinner. (“I’m sorry you’re hungry. Dinnertime is over. You have to wait until snacktime now.”)

If there isn’t enough time between dinner and bedtime, then do the small pre-dinner snack like you mentioned. (Or both!) Don’t worry so much about making it perfect or varied: milk, cheese, yogurt, hummus are all fine. Anything that can get him a smidge of protein without a ton of sugar is great. But mostly just aim for good-enough nutrition, honestly.

My kids all have a snack once they’re home from school, but tend to choose the sweetest carb they can find in the pantry — granola bars, toaster pastries, graham crackers, etc. And then naturally those foods don’t really “stick” with them and they’re completely ravenous an hour or so later. I used to be a hardass and make them wait for dinner (which could still be an hour or two away, depending on my husband’s schedule), thinking that the hungrier they were, the more they’d eat at dinner. I discovered that actually, that’s not necessarily true. It really mostly meant they bothered me while I was cooking, were constantly begging/running underfoot/ etc., SUPER cranky by dinner, and more likely to whine or just be generally unpleasant at the table.

Adding a small, protein-rich snack in between the after-school snack (at 3:30) and dinner (6:30) had zero effect on their dinnertime food intake, but a WONDERFUL effect on their behavior.(And maybe even whets their appetite? Gets them more in the mood for non-sweet/savory dinner foods?) Our pre-dinner snack is small and sugar-free — a scoop of natural, chunky peanut butter on a spoon, lollipop style, or a bowl of nuts/seeds/trail mix, some sharp cheddar cheese slices, etc. Keep him seated for the snack, both for choking/supervision reasons and to underscore the fact that this snack is a Planned Formal Thing Mom Is In Charge Of, rather than a random run-by begging for scraps. If he finishes and asks for more, tell him that snacktime is over, but dinner will come soon and he can eat more then.

Offer Healthy Foods as Frequently As Possible

To be honest, my three year old still doesn’t eat much dinner every night. Some nights, sure, but there doesn’t seem to be much rhyme or reason to it. Familiar, acceptable foods get rejected just as often as brand-new offerings. He knows he won’t get dessert; he doesn’t care. We don’t have a post-bedtime snack but he seems okay with that — no tummy complaints or begging for breakfast at 5 a.m. So Imma assume our current schedule of meals and snacks is working for him and he’s getting enough calories and nutrition despite his frequent OH SO THREE YEARS OLD dinnertime strikes. (He’s also growing and gaining weight just fine, like your son.)

Adding a planned snacktime or two — something he will reliably eat — to the later part of your son’s day SHOULD solve your problems, since it sounds like he’s going an AWFUL long time without eating anything — even that enormous lunch and post-nap milk aren’t going to get him all the way to bedtime without hunger pangs. (AND  I KNOW, HE SHOULD JUST EAT DINNER, BUT YOU KNOW THREE YEAR OLDS MAKE NO SENSE.) He should be offered meals and snacks spaced every few hours throughout the entire day to keep up with his never-ending energy-burning. And maybe, hopefully, with time, his body will come to prefer smaller amounts of food all throughout the day (including dinner), rather than trying to get the bulk of his calories at only breakfast and lunch.

As for the lunch issue, I wouldn’t get too worked up over it. You could always pack him a varied, bento-style lunch at night for the sitter to feed him the next day, but it’s probably best to accept that you can’t really control what he eats when he’s in the care of another — he might refuse to eat what you packed, the sitter responds by short-order cooking for him because it makes her job easier, thus undermining your food goals even more. This will always be true, once he starts all-day school or hanging at friends’ homes, so you might as well just Zen out about it now. My 9 year old has probably eaten a version of the same two or three lunches every day of his entire life, and has still managed to break through the picky eater barrier and accept a wide variety of foods at dinner. (And don’t even get me started on the variety-wasteland that is breakfast around here.) You’re at pretty much Peak Pain In The Ass About Food at his current age, but it will pass. And provided you stick with your plan and stay consistent, everything is going to be okay.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to [email protected].

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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