Recently I talked to a friend who was struggling to establish structure in her children’s meals. We ended up brainstorming ideas for breakfast and nighttime snack. Her kids were not hungry in the morning, so they tended to refuse all the typical breakfast foods, like cereals, smoothies, P&J etc. In the afternoon, they were eating a big meal after school and then went on snacking till nighttime, instead of eating a lovingly prepared from scratch dinner. Favorite bedtime snack – cheese and crackers, eagerly anticipated each night and often eaten instead of dinner in big amounts.

So what was the problem here?

– Lack of structure in meals and snacks. The kids were grazing all afternoon and evening.

– No breakfast – this means they were starting the day with an empty gas tank – not an optimal choice for academic performance.

– Not eating dinner was rewarded by their favorite snack – cheese and crackers. Kids are smart and they understand very quickly that refusing a meal is the best way to get their favorite snack. Besides, eating a big meal or snack late in the evening was probably the reason for lack of appetite in the morning.

 Here are the solutions we found together:

– Serving a filling and nutritious snack after school. They are very hungry – great! Bring on those vegetables, fruit and a dip that they will eat happily. Combine them with some starch like bread or crackers and some protein like hummus or eggs to keep hunger at bay till dinnertime. The result – more fruits and veggies in their tummies and less pressure to eat them at dinner table.

-Preparing the favorite foods (as far as they are not too sugary and have some protein) for breakfast. They will start eating their breakfast. Research shows that breakfast is important for learning, running, socializing and doing other important things in kids’ lives. In this case, cheese and crackers were removed from evening snack and served at breakfast instead. My kids, like many others, adore pasta with cheese and I serve it for breakfast regularly.

– Offering a small and very simple snack before bedtime if the dinner has been rejected and the kids are hungry.  It is important to make sure it is not an exciting option, otherwise they may not refuse dinner and wait for their treat instead. For my kids, it can be milk and a piece of bread. For my friend’s family, plain oatmeal became a great choice.

The lessons to learn:

  1. Be unconventional, and experiment with different foods at different eating occasions.
  2. Establish a meal structure  (3 meals and 1-2 snacks ) and stick to it.
  3. Relax at dinnertime. Serve more veggies during the day, for lunch, snacks and even breakfast (veggie and egg burrito anyone?), so if the carrots at dinner are left untouched, not a big deal.

Rampersaud GC, Pereira MA, Girard BL, Adams J, Metzl JD. Breakfast habits, nutritional status, body weight, and academic performance in children and adolescents. J Am Diet Assoc 2005;105(5):743–60

Wesnes KA, Pincock C, Richardson D, Helm G, Hails S. Breakfast reduces declines in attention and memory over the morning in schoolchildren. Appetite 2003;41(3):329–31.