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Should Toddlers Snack on Demand?

There's an interesting discussion about snacking going on over at Baby Led Weaning.

It was spurred on by a reader's reaction to my post Do Kids Need to Snack?.  I'm sure you recall that post (having committed all of my writing to memory) but just in case you don't, my main points were:

  1. The research jury is still out on the number of times people need to eat during the day, and not all countries promote frequent snacking like we do here in the U.S.
  2. Despite the persistent belief that snacking is a healthy habit, most American kids snack on trash.
  3. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t seem to have a policy on the number of snacks kids should consume during the day.

Then, I went on to give a list of recommendations for parents to consider should they decide to let their kids snack.  One of my recommendations was that kids should NOT snack on demand.   And this seems to be the thrust of the debate over at Baby Led Weaning.  Read what people are saying.

Should toddlers snack on demand?

Let me be clear about one thing: I do believe that infants should eat on demand. Toddlers, however, are another story. Toddlers need to transition from eating on demand to eating more on a schedule. Here's why:

1. In the ideal world, people would only eat when they were hungry.  And, if those hungry times didn't coincide with times when other people were hungry it wouldn't be a problem.  

Unfortunately, in today's world, even young children are subjected to the constraints of conventional mealtimes.  Just ask any parent who sends her child to daycare: There's snack time and there's lunch time.  If your child misses the boat....  It only gets worse when kids get older.  (Think about those excruciatingly short school lunches some kids are subjected to.)

2. When children know they can eat whenever they want, they have no incentive to eat at mealtimes.  Most parents I know want their children to eat (and to eat well) at meals for a variety of reasons, including the fact that meals are typically when kids are exposed to new foods.

3. Many parents who let their children eat on demand have difficulty setting limits on snacking before mealtimes because they feed their children whenever they are hungry.  

If you don't allow snacking before meals then you are setting the kind of limits I recommend, and our thoughts on snacking are probably not that far apart.

4. When children are completely left to their own devices to choose what they eat, they often end up eating the same foods over and over.  For many toddlers the result is an increasingly narrow diet and an aversion to new foods.  (Although many parents who support grazing rotate the kinds of foods they provide, most of the parents I know who allow snacking on demand also let their children decide what they eat.)

5. Snacking on demand teaches children that even mild hunger is to be avoided.  This is the wrong (life) lesson for kids to learn.

I let my daughter snack on demand.

You might be surprised to learn this.  Not only did I let my daughter snack on demand when she was a toddler, I continue to let her snack on demand even now, and she's 11.

So maybe I need to clear up what I mean by snacking on demand.  As a toddler, I let my daughter choose when she ate her snack. I never let her choose how many snacks she ate.  In other words, no grazing.

In this way, I created a structure that enabled my daughter to keep control over her own hunger/satiation while, at the same time, I did not undermine what I was trying to do at meals.

Now, though, I wonder if even that amount of snacking was or is necessary.  I don't know.  What I do know is...

When children ask for a steady stream of snacks throughout the day they are not eating enough when they do sit down to eat.

There are many reasons, other than excessive snacking, why a toddler might not eat well at meals.  The primary reason? The typical toddler ants-in-the-pants, something-better-going-on-over-there syndrome.

But, the solution to an antsy kid isn't to increase snacking frequency.  Rather, the answer is to increase how much your child eats when it's time to eat. (This you do through a combination of antsy eating-on-the-go and by distinguishing between eating and non-eating times so your child comes to the table primed to eat.) 

There is no evidence that constant eating—i.e. snacking completely on demand—is healthy.  The research that supports eating multiple meals and snacks throughout the day is always referring to discrete, confined, episodes of eating.  (If I'm wrong, please point me to this research.)

Of course, I assume that the parents over at Baby Led Weaning know this and don't really support letting their children eat totally on demand.  However, in my experience, there is a fine line between grazing and eating on demand.

When parents have trouble getting children to eat when, what (or even how much) they want, the first correction typically involves snacking.

Indeed, I don't think it's too much to say that getting snacking right is the key to teaching kids to eat right because snacking is central to the entire eating system.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

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Reader Comments (5)

I let my 2.5 year old SORT OF snack on demand. And by that I mean that if her 'hunger' happens within a certain window of opportunity when I may have offered one anyway, then her request will be met with a YES! But if lunch is at noon and she wants to snack at 11, no way. However, if by 10:30 she asks for a snack I may indulge her and push lunch a little later so she can develop a little hunger again. That said I tend to be FAMISHED within an hour of a meal. Not a little hungry...FAMISHED and jittery and grouchy. So I end up having to sneak something when the kiddo isn't looking. For the record I'm on the extreme side of thin and not because I am rigid in my diet. So I figure any extra calories help me out.

July 5, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAdina

I don't have time to answer all these points but just to say - at my son's nursery there is no "snack time" and they just leave fruit out all day for the children to eat as they want. I eat when I'm hungry - why would I not let my toddler do the same? The main point of Baby Led Weaning (not Parent Led Weaning as you call it near the end) is to stop our children having the same kind of food issues that our generation grew up with (e.g. Comfort snacking, binge-eating) and I don't see how denying them food when they're hungry helps them develop a healthy relationship with food. And weirdly, they aren't hungry at the same time every day. Just like they don't do exactly the same thing every day. Do you have research that backs up the need for scheduled snacking?

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterKate

I am one of those "no snacks within an hour or so of meals" people. In our house, because we're not super morning people, that translates to at most one snack after school (or lunch, on the weekends) and sometimes dessert after dinner. I will say that one thing I've found is that saying no to most snacks doesn't lead to a starving kid. A lot of times she's just a little bored, and if I say no snacks because dinner's being served at such-and-such a time, I get no pushback probably 95% of the time. She just goes off to do something else.

And I think there's room for a lot of flexibility within the limits you describe. You can tell when your kid is ravenous, or when they've been doing something especially physically taxing, and bend the rules then.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervictoria

I have a 3yr old & a 1yr old with very different appetites and eating habits. They get a snack mid morning, then lunch is around 11.30, and it's usually a picky plate, e.g. oatcakes, cheese, cucumber, grapes, humous, etc. The 3yr old will scoff the lot in one go. The youngest will take a few bites then she's done, but I leave the plate available and she revisits it in her own time later when she is hungry. They're offered something else mid-afternoon, but if they're crying in agonised hunger (!) while I'm preparing dinner they can have a bite of whatever I'm chopping or cooking, as I.would if I were hungry.

July 6, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAlison

Thanks everyone for sharing your stories.

Adina: The way you handle snacks sounds like the kind of structure I am talking about. And if you are always starving after a meal perhaps you could tinker with what you eat. Sounds like blood sugar to me.

Kate: There are quite a few answers to your question about the research. First, the research about the number of times people should eat per day (which I point out has conflicting results) is always talking about discrete meals and snacks. Second, there is a body of research that shows that grazing can lead to both undereating and to overeating amongst young children. (A good review of this literature can be found in Ellyn Satter's book Your Child's Weight: Helping Without Harming). Also, the work on parenting and feeding outcomes shows that having a combination of structure and flexibility works best for feeding children compared to a permissive style (which is what I think describes the grazing model you suggest). There's even been research which shows that when parents create more of a general authoritative parenting style at home, not particularly focusing on food, kids eat better.

I'm with you on the goal of eliminating food issues. That is actually my primary goal in feeding my daughter and in writing this blog. I just don't think that grazing is the way to achieve that for most families. On the other hand, if this method works for you and your son, then I say, why mess with a good thing?

Victoria: Thanks for brining up the point about snacking and boredom. I neglected to address this in my post but you're so right.

Alison: In my experience working with parents, picky eaters get a little less picky when there is more of a schedule to their meals and snacks. I don't know if this would work in your case (there are always a lot of different things going on), but it might be worth a try.


July 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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