The Secret Art of the Snack
If you are like me, then you have kids that balk at mealtime and go in and out of food phases. Starting around 14 months, my oldest began to have an opinion about food. When they are that age, they devour oatmeal one morning and act like it is poisoned garbage the next.
One meal they eat like they haven’t seen food in weeks and don’t believe you are planning to feed them again, but the next three meals they just pick and push. And they are always asking for a snack between meals!
What’s a poor mom to do?
Healthy Food at Set Meal Times
At first, I tried to force it, but then I read an excerpt from a book that totally changed my thinking.
Someone in a moms group passed it on, and now I can’t remember the book at all. It says kids in this early toddler stage are just starting to explore their bodies and learning how to care for themselves. They don’t really understand hunger or that they need to eat.
The book encouraged parents to let kids eat as much or as little as they wanted during this stage (about 14 months to around two years old), but it discouraged snacking. Set meals at set times so the kid would learn how to eat.
I did it, and the stress of food suddenly eased up a lot.
When the child is too young to fully communicate a want (or even understand it), offering about three choices on the tray three times a day has worked well.
Klay (16 months) is in this stage right now. The other day I put shredded chicken, bananas and cooked brocoli on his tray. At first he wasn’t thrilled, but I left him with it for a bit and he gave in and ate the bananas. Some meals he cleans the tray. Eventually, over the course of days, the kids get enough to eat.
The book said even if the toddler seems to barely eat for two or three meals/days, it’s completely normal and they will make up for it later.
Early Childhood Food Choices
My kids absolutely love “good food.”
And by that, I mean boxed mac&cheese, PB&J, chicken nuggets, frozen pizzas and pizza rolls. When I put time and effort into my cooking (which is about 80% of the time here), I also have to put time and effort into getting them to eat it.
Now that they are a little older, I have expectations for the minimum they should eat each meal. Usually, they have to stay in their seat until it’s gone. Common exceptions are at parties and get-togethers where they are just really distracted. Of course, it’s also different if they aren’t feeling well.
Sometimes I save rolls, fruit or offer a dessert that they can only have if they finish their food first.
To give an example of their dinner plate: I typically give them about 1/4 c of meat pieces, a few (like 2 or three) veggies and then a starch (pasta, potatoes, etc.). In total, there is less than a cup of food on their first plate and they can always have more. Even the kid that doesn’t like broccoli is supposed to eat his two pieces. These two excerpts from the NCBI explain how important it is to not give up on offering those unliked foods:
“Parents act by teaching children in different ways how, what, when, and how much to eat and by transmitting cultural and familial beliefs and practices surrounding food and eating. Parents’ influence is significant: it is reflected both by what is on the plate and the context in which it is offered.”
“Neophobic tendencies can be reduced and preferences can be increased by exposing infants and young children repeatedly to novel foods. Children need to be exposed to a novel food between 6 and 15 times before increases in intake and preferences are seen. A recent study found that repeatedly exposing children to a novel food within a positive social environment was especially effective in increasing children’s willingness to try it. These findings suggest the importance of both the act of repeatedly exposing children to new foods and the context within which this exposure occurs.”National Center for Biotechnology Information, Early Taste Experiences and Later Food Choices
They still get McDonald’s or a peanut butter and jelly picnic with a side of grapes and string cheese. But I already know they like those things. It’s the grilled asparagus, fresh spinach salads and raw tomatoes they need exposure to.
As a kid, we didn’t eat a wide variety of things because my dad was a very picky eater. It took me a while into college and adulthood to expand my taste buds (and my brother is still a very limited eater). I want my kids to have a healthy appreciation for good food. And I hope they won’t be afraid to try new things.
The Power of Snack Time
There is something magical about snack time, though. I realized when they were still pretty little that they got desperately hungry as I was cooking dinner. At first, I would tell them to wait for dinner because I didn’t need anything making that harder or taking longer. I definitely didn’t need them less hungry for dinnertime.
But, then I got a great idea. I started offering them whatever vegetable I was cutting up for dinner. Hungry? I have raw broccoli right here. Or, you can try a raw onion piece. I almost always have a vegetable that can be eaten raw.
When they wrinkled their nose and ran out–no problem (I didn’t really want to give you a snack anyways).
And do you know what happened? These crazy kids started taking me up on my offer. They were eating raw mushrooms, tomatoes, bell peppers, green beans and more. And they were excited about it! So was I, but I didn’t let on…
When they saw I didn’t care (and was almost begrudging about the vegetable snack), it piqued their interest. Even though I was happy they were eating veggies, I never let on that it was a good thing (reverse psychology here). And there was a power about snack time that made those foods seem especially tasty.
And, when one thinks it’s an appealing offer, it rubs off on the others. Kniya liked it first, so the boys started trying it too. Last night, Klay and his 4.5 teeth gnawed a green bean to bits just so he could be one of the big kids. And, he ate that raw bean like it was a piece of candy.
Occasionally, they do have “normal” snacks. Granola bars, pretzels, goldfish, animal crackers, fruit and other snacks are special around here. I really prefer to include them on the lunch plate, rather than give them their own spotlight in the afternoon. Kids love to fill up on processed foods. I also take snacks like that to the park or zoo, since they are easy to pack.
They still sometimes balk during meal time at those same vegetables, but it has gotten a lot better. And, I found that outside, they love to try new things straight out of the garden. Growing our own food has added even more excitement to trying raw foods.
If they eat a bunch of raw veggies for snack, I usually let them choose if they want any more on their plate for dinner. Usually, after about 10 raw green beans, I will let them pick.
It also helps a ton when they see us eating the vegetables. Like they want to watch us eat it first to ensure it isn’t poisonous. Dad has about 2x the cred I do.