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

And this comes straight from 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.

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.

Amalah
About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch

Amalah

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 amyadvice@gmail.com.

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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Comments

  • Myriam

    I was going to propose a packed lunch too, but only if he’S the only kid there and only if your daycare lady is willing to feed him that and only that for lunch. I have a feeling that might not work though, reading through between the lines… 

  • Molly

    Yes to this. We have found that eating begets more eating with our two year old, in much the same way that sleep was supposed to beget more sleep when he was younger. He eats more at dinner (around 6pm) on nights when he has a snack at daycare pickup (around 5pm), regardless of what we’re having. Sometimes we’ll start him off with an appetizer of a favorite food (a small bowl of raspberries lately), and when that’s gone he’ll just keep on eating whatever is on his plate (some version of what the grownups are having). If we just put that plate in front of him without the appetizer, exact same foods, exact same presentation, he often won’t touch it. More snacks is your answer. We are also generous with the (whole) milk before bed and first thing in the morning, to help take the edge off the crankyhungry with minimal effort, but I know not everyone would agree with that strategy. 

  • IrishCream

    Just to offer some reassurance, hopefully…my now-4.5 yr old has always been one of those kids who skips dinner, essentially. She does eat a healthy afternoon snack, which sounds like a great idea for your son too, but nine nights out of ten she doesn’t eat more than two or three bites at dinner. It bugs me a little because it just seems wrong, from my perspective as an adult who would be ravenous if I missed dinner, but it’s just how she’s wired, at least for now. She front-loads her calories for the first half of the day, and she’s healthy and energetic, so…okay then, you do you, kid!

    • Kate

      Both of mine (5.5 and 3) have never been much for eating dinner. I can usually get my youngest to eat something but my son just isn’t interested especially now that he’s started school. His school qualified for free breakfast and lunch for everyone and although I still pack everything because of his food intolerances he’s still eating 4 times before he even gets home from school. As soon as he gets home he wants to eat so he has to finish his lunch/snack (peas, cooked carrot sticks, quinoa muffins) before he gets anything else so I just don’t care if he doesn’t eat “dinner.”

  • Diana

    My kids ate their dinner at 4:30 for years, either a very healthy kids snack or leftovers from dinner the night before.  I sat with them while they ate so it was a “real mealtime”, and then either they sat with us and sampled the options at grownup dinner time or if my husband had a late night at work and got home at bedtime, it was no big deal.  Their metabolisms didnt adjust to having dinner at grownup dinnertime until they started elementary school.  Even now there are days when dinner is late and my youngest eats most of her dinner by “helping” me cook …

  • Anna

    I don’t think eating a consistent lunch is necessarily going to ruin the ability to eat a varied dinner. Heck, I’m 26 an at work I pretty much eat the same lunch every day (a wrap with chicken, bacon, and veg) but at night I’ll make dinner as varied as eggplant parmigiana, roast duck with orange-ginger-soy glaze, sausage bean and kale soup… The list goes on, but you get the picture.

    And this is totally consistent with how me, my sibling, and my baby cousin- and my mother and aunt- were all raised. Lunch is easy fuel when you’re growing up on a farm- sandwiches, noodle soups, leftovers, frozen meals on busy days (baby cousin was a fish stick obsessed toddler; I was really into mini Red Baron pizzas), dinner is time to make stir fry and yakisoba or curry and rice or a roast with potatoes and broccoli, to name a few things we ate pretty regularly growing up.

    My mom’s “you’re too hungry to make a good decision” meal for us was a small bowl of Cheerios and milk.

  • CeeBee

    Maybe there’s a way to get the sitter to hold him off on the second sandwich (if the first is a whole sandwich to start) or anything past a second helping of fruit, etc. with the promise that he can have those things as a snack a little later. I agree he needs a snack but maybe a tiny push back on stocking up at lunch. Yesterday, my 2.5 year old ate a homemade breakfast sandwich for lunch (the whole thing!), and then when I’d gotten around to plating the pasta lunch I made for everyone else, he ate a bowl of that too and then didn’t eat dinner. And dinner had the promise of a cookie if he ate well. He never once threw a fit about not getting the cookie that’s how not hungry he was.

  • Ali

    So this is perhaps not ideal, but we have at least for the time being, given up on the idea of a family dinner. I love the idea in theory, but my 2 1/2 is READY for bed at 6:30-7 and I just can’t get our family dinner on the table fast enough. He’s generally not much of a dinner guy anyway, so we also rely on big and healthy snacks in late afternoon. Most days my toddler will eat something like a yogurt+banana+ “Veggie with dip.” Then I’ve given up on a true dinner.

    If you’ve given up on your ideal lunch at the sitter’s, I wonder if it would work for her to give him a healthy snack in the morning? That might mean a slightly lighter lunch and more nutrition overall.

  • CSmith

    Some years ago when we had 4 kids(going on 5) and I was super tired, I got sick and tired of the food wars. So, I just stopped. I didn’t want to be the boss of all the food, it wasn’t a battle I chose to fight. 
    Now, I cook meals on a regular schedule and pretty much let the kids eat whenever they’re hungry. We don’t keep soda, chips, or snack cakes in the house unless it’s a special occasion. I always have a few fruit choices in the fridge, along with yogurt and a tray of cut-up veggies (carrots, raw broccoli, cucumbers) that I replenish whenever I make a milk or bread run to the store. We always sit down together at meal time,but we focus on conversation and manners. I make plates for the kids under 8 and include some of everything but I just don’t discuss it. I might rave about how good something is and tell a kid that it’s something they would like but I don’t beg, threaten, or bribe. Our only food rules are that you must eat at the table or counter and if you get a snack you can only take 1 of a certain item so that one person doesn’t eat 6 yogurts and leave none for the next kid.  It works for us, food is just rarely an issue in our house, some of my 7 kids have certainly gone through picky stages when they only ate bananas and peanut butter for a month but they got past it just as soon as the older kids whom I used to beg to eat.

  • liz

    Re: 5AM breakfast. Can you leave out some non-choking foods for him? Yogurt tube and cheerios maybe? Or GORP? And a sippy cup of something? If he’s not big enough to open the fridge, you could put it in an insulated bag or box. It’ll give him a small measure of independence over food, and you can stay asleep.

  • MR

    I agree with Amy – child isn’t hungry at dinner, or only eats a few bites, ok. We make our kids sit at the table with us for a bit, but then they can be excused once we have asked about their day and such. But, if they barely ate dinner, they don’t get anything else to eat until they have more dinner. So, we take it and put it aside for them, so that an hour later when they are hungry, we offer them dinner again. Because otherwise my kids would skip dinner entirely, knowing they liked their snack better. They then have to eat a certain amount (differs depending on the kid and what we are serving) of dinner before they can have their more favored snack. But, this way, they try new things, and we also don’t feel like we wasted time making dinner for them. This has worked really well for us because it isn’t a battle. When they say they aren’t hungry, “Ok, if you aren’t hungry, you don’t have to eat. When you are hungry, you can eat your dinner.” For our older daughter, we usually add an additional reminder of “You don’t get anything else until you have eaten your dinner.” She has gotten to the point where she then usually just asks how many bites she has to eat, and will eat them quickly before leaving the table, because she knows it 1) isn’t much, 2) tastes better warm/fresh. But, she tested it plenty of times before getting to that point.

    • Suzy Q

      You were like my mother, and I hated this approach. There were many foods I just didn’t like. Forcing them on me made me resentful (not to mention angry at her) and even more picky. It was a lose-lose method for both sides.  I was well into adulthood before I started being more adventurous with food.

      • Nick B

        My mom was also just like MR, and it worked out just fine for us. I learned that there were rules and she got us to try – and like! – many different foods this way. My mom also had a rule that we had to at least try the food – two bites – and if we still didn’t like it then we didn’t have to eat it. But there was always something on the plate that we enjoyed so we didn’t go hungry, and she didn’t have to short order cook for us. If we were just being cranky about not eating, then it was our problem, not hers. We learned that we had a choice – stop being cranky and get on with dinner, or pitch a fit and be hungry.

  • Julie

    Thanks for this. It inspired me to give my five year olds a hunk of cheddar maybe 40 minutes before dinner (so when we first walk in). So much less fighting ! And still eating a good mea!

  • Mary

    My 2.5 year old went a few weeks eating very little if anything at dinner, despite enjoying eating many of the meals in past. One night, she told me after bath and teeth brushing she was hungry and her tummy was “rumbling”. I didn’t want her to go to bed hungry so I offered some fruit, which she ate. Then she started always saying she was hungry after bath, even if she DID eat dinner, because heck, I get to stay up a bit longer and eat a snack! Oops! After a few days we just stopped, and told her she had eat before bath time if she was hungry. I added the fruit serving to her meal which she almost always eats (I didn’t before because the kid literally eats 5 servings of fruit a day). Also, I do find that she starts off eating something that she like best (fruit) and then when it is gone, she seems more apt to eat the pork chop or whatever else is there. Maybe adding a small amount of a favorite food would help? Try also to get good quality foods in if you can even if it is only a bite or two. My daughter will turn down a lot but she loves homemade guacamole…who knew?! Good calories, healthy fat is a WIN. My friend’s son is SUPER picky and very small (failure to thrive). His doctor said aim for 7 good meals in a week (1/day), and that would not necessarily be optimal, but he would be fine.

  • Steph

    I needed to read this today, because I’ve been wondering the same think about my 4 year old. We’ve been reading the Satter book and following it for a couple of weeks. He’ll eat a HUGE breakfast and then not much at dinner but spends all afternoon whining for food, which reaches a fever pitch RIGHT as I’m trying to cook dinner. I’d been assuming that whatever snack he’s been getting at afternoon preschool should be enough to carry him through to dinner. But last night I started thinking about it and realizing that some days those snacks probably don’t have any protein and really aren’t enough to keep him going until dinner at 5 or 6. So. Planned late-afternoon snack it is! 

  • Kath

    I feel you!  Our 5th percentile, just-shy-of-3-year-old will NOT EAT DINNER, regardless of whether they’re foods he’ll happily scarf down at lunchtime.  

    Our solution: bedtime snack.  I was a tiny little thing throwing up with the same resistance to meals, and my parents always gave me a milkshake as we read a book every night.  Now, we do the same thing with our son.  It works pretty well at a) keeping him full and b) gives him to eat at meals (we tell him “if you want a special treat, please eat more dinner.”)  To clarify: when I say “milkshake”, I mean about two tablespoons of vanilla ice cream dropped in an 8-oz glass of milk (not a 40-oz. Dairy Queen special).  

    We also follow the same rule as daycare, and give a protein-heavy snack in the midafternoon, which seems to help.

    Good luck!!

  • Convalesce with Sofia

    Your blog has been so so helpful !! Thank yo so much 🙏🏼☺️❤️