Of the all the questions I get asked by parents, one of most common has got to be about snacks. Do I need to give one to my child? What makes for a great snack? What about a bedtime snack? Here is the lowdown on these mini meals.
What age to start?
There’s no hard and fast rule indicating when kids start needing a snack, but a good rule of thumb is to offer 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day by about 1 year of age. A 6-month old who has just transitioned to solid foods certainly doesn’t need a “snack” (though their “meals” may be so small that they appear to be more of a snack). Once your baby’s intake of solids starts to progress, you will begin adding a meal to their daily eating regime. Our kids were a bit on the slower side of getting into solid foods, so we started with 1 meal per day at 6 months, then added a second meal by around 7-8 months, and a third meal by about 9 months. Both nursed several times in the day at this age, so breastmilk was still meeting a significant part of their nutrient needs.
One thing I teach in my Starting Solids & Baby-Led Weaning workshop is that the majority of a baby’s nutrient needs are met by breastmilk and/or formula until 9-12 months of age (with some exceptions, namely iron). Gradually, around 9 months, this shifts towards solid foods playing a greater role in providing much-needed nutrients to your little one.
A regular schedule of meals and snacks should be happening from one year of age onward. Earlier than this is fine too, so long as it is done responsively, i.e. your baby is requesting it in one way or another.
We know that babies and toddlers have small tummies (picture the size of their little fist). This means that we want to ensure that they are eating every 2-3 hours. When exactly in the day these feeding times happen will vary from one family to the next of course. What is critical here is timing.
Timing of snacks is more important than parents may think. A snack given too soon after a meal may encourage the child to hold off on eating much at mealtime knowing that a snack will soon follow. A snack given too close to mealtime will almost certainly fill up your child’s tummy, causing a frustrating lunch or dinner with proclamations of “I’m not hungry!” coming from your little one. I would say this is one of the top reasons why kids aren’t hungry at mealtime: They’ve already filled up their limited tummy real estate with a snack!
I recommend that a snack be offered right in between meals (eg. between breakfast and lunch, or lunch and dinner). So take a look at what time your child has breakfast, lunch and dinner, and aim to offer a snack somewhere in between those meals (it’s not an exact science of course). On an average day our kids have breakfast at 7am, lunch at 12pm and dinner at 5:30pm, so snacks happen around 9:30am and 3pm. Another rule of thumb is to avoid offering a snack within an hour to 90 mins. of a meal (either before or after the meal).
Snacks are one of those things we tend to eat when we’re on the go. Still, Ellyn Satter (dietitian and child-feeding guru) recommends trying to instil the habit early on that snacks take place sitting down, not while running around or doing other activities. Think of it as your child’s introduction to “mindful eating”. Yes, food is fuel, but it is also so much more than that. It’s important to carve out a bit of time to sit down and eat your snack (this goes for you too mom and dad!). While that may mean on a picnic bench or a blanket on the beach, sitting down to eat is always better than eating while moving, not to mention it is also much safer (to avoid choking)!
There is a common misconception that snacks are unnecessary, or an excuse for kids to fill up on junk food. As I’ve mentioned already, snacks are a hugely important part of a child’s diet. Think of them as an opportunity to meet nutrient and food needs that may not have been met through meals. The key is to choose foods wisely. As a parent, I’m aware of the abundance of snack foods marketed at kids that are of abysmal nutritional quality. In fact, I find if a product has the word “snack”, “veggie” or “fruit” in it, I will almost always steer clear of it as it is likely to be a sugar and sodium bomb.
A healthy snack will have a balance of carbohydrate, fat and protein. If you’re familiar with Canada’s Food Guide, this would look like a combination of at least 2 food groups. A few of my favourite snacks that I regularly give to my toddler and preschooler (usually paired with fruit of some kind):
- roasted chickpeas
- veggie sticks and hummus
- homemade muffins or granola bars
- cheese and Triscuits
- homemade trail mix (with dark chocolate of course)
Not sure how much your toddler or preschooler should be eating every day? Grab my free cheat sheet here!
A great snack has foods from at least 2 food groups (fruit & vegs, grains, milk & alternatives and meat & alternatives). Include a fruit and/or vegetable at every snack to help your child meet his or her intake of this food group, and to get them into the habit of eating these foods regularly. And the less store-bought, highly processed “snacky” type foods the better (though occasionally these happen, and that’s OK).
Bedtime snack: Yay or Nay?
So what about a bedtime snack? Should I be giving one to my child? Once again, there is no concrete rule here. However, I suggest taking a few things into consideration when making your decision whether or not to give a bedtime snack.
Is there a large gap between dinnertime and bedtime for your child? If so, it most certainly makes sense to offer a bedtime snack so your little one doesn’t go to bed hungry. I consider more than 2 hours between dinner and bed a “large” gap. In other words, if dinner happens at 5:30pm and bedtime isn’t until 8pm, and your child is showing interest in having a snack, I would suggest offering one. If, however, dinner is at 6pm and bedtime is at 7pm, your child likely doesn’t need a snack before bed. What if he or she didn’t eat much at dinner? That shouldn’t have much influence on whether a bedtime snack is being offered or not. As I mentioned before, kids will sometimes hold off on dinner knowing their tummies will soon be filled again, perhaps by something more appealing.
If you do decide to offer a bedtime snack, make it a nutritious one that is filling but not overly exciting. A small glass of milk and fruit with nut butter is one example, instead of a bowl of ice cream with sprinkles (though I’d be lying if I said that one has never happened in our home).
Offer a bedtime snack if there is a gap of 2 or more hours between dinner and bedtime. Include foods that weren’t offered elsewhere in the day.
The take-home message here is that snacks are an important part of your chid’s diet, but it is also a place where parents can go off-track. Make it planned, and think balance and variety. A snack truly is a “mini meal”. And like all things parenting, there will be wins and fails. Like the time my husband was away and I was low on groceries, and my child got a “special trail mix” of cheerios and chocolate chips. Not one of my best, though my son sure thought so.