What is the best way to feed children? Letting them graze or having a schedule?

I am sure I am not the only parent who is tired of food being offered to our kids at every occasion. From sports activities to playdates, eating around the clock seems to have become a norm in our society. As a mom, I also know that it requires a significant effort on the parents’ part to cut down on grazing and a recent incident in our local grocery store confirmed it.

My friend,  a mom of two toddlers, was doing some last-minute grocery shopping. It was an hour or so before dinner and everyone was tired and hungry. Using distractions for kids and a shopping list for herself, she successfully managed to quickly navigate the aisles without giving in to kids’ requests to buy a snack.

With a sigh of relief, she paid at the checkout and then her kids saw a free “healthy snack” stand recently set up in the grocery store. The offerings included granola bars, chocolate milk, juice, apples and bananas and all kids who were in the store could pick up a free snack of their choice.

At this point, my friend gave up and allowed the kids chose what they liked from the basket. They happily grabbed juice boxes and granola bars, ignoring the fruit. “At least these foods are healthier than cookies”, said my friend. “And they are organic, too”.

Is grazing on healthy snacks a problem?

Serving a snack to a child is a great way to fill in the nutritional “gaps” that may occur during the day. For example, if your child skipped milk in the morning, serving him a cheese stick or yogurt for an afternoon snack will help him meet his calcium needs (read more about dairy requirements for different ages here).

Or if your child does not eat a lot of veggies at dinner, serving him raw carrots and celery with a dip at a snack is a great opportunity to add fiber, vitamins, and minerals to his diet.

Snacks do not always have to be ultra nutritious, it is also ok to serve fun foods, like cookies, chips, and others, especially in a combo with other foods. Here is how you can create a filling, balanced and fun snack using a regular plate.

Research shows that the timing of meals and snacks is as important as what we feed our kids. Structure in mealtimes is a foundation of balanced eating habits. But, as many parents will agree, the structure also happens to be the hardest thing to establish.

Our kids now snack more than ever and although less nutritional options like chips and cookies are often in the limelight of criticism, allowing kids to graze all day on healthier foods is not a good idea either. Structure in meals and snacks, on the other hand, can help kids well at meals and get important nutrition from less processed foods.

What are the benefits of a meal structure?

1. Meal structure means providing planned meals and snacks at the same time every day.

After a while, this rhythm will help your kids build the hunger for mealtimes, eat enough to “last” till the next eating opportunity and stay attuned to their hunger-satiety mechanisms both during and in between meals and snacks. No structure in meals and snacks means that children will be either not hungry or overly hungry at mealtimes neither of which helps them eat well.

2. Structure prevents grazing (eating outside the schedule) and feeding battles that arise from it.

When you follow a structure in meals and snacks, it is easier to say “no” when your child is asking for a treat at an inappropriate time or place.

For example, my kids were offered a cookie yesterday when we were in the park. I allowed them to take it but reminded that since it was not a time for a snack, they could enjoy them for dessert this evening. By sticking to the structure we saved their appetite for dinner that was coming in half an hour and they did not feel deprived because could still enjoy the treat later.

3. Structure saves money.

You do not have to buy overpriced packaged snacks so that your kids have something to eat on the go because if you focus on structure, eating on the go will not happen often. Instead, make sure to plan 1 or 2 sit-down snacks per day. Serve minimally processed foods like fruit, vegetables, meat, cheese or whole grains most of the time with an occasional packaged snack a couple of times a week.

4.  Structure gives you peace of mind.

Even if your child does not eat enough at mealtime or snack, you know that he will get another opportunity to eat soon. If a child starts asking for a snack almost immediately after leaving the table, a good strategy would be to tell him that a scheduled snack will be served in a couple of hours instead of handing a snack of his choice on the spot.

Meal Structure or grazing? What works best for kids?

Creating the structure in meals and snacks.

1. Offer 3 meals and 1 or 2 snacks every day at the same time. 

While babies and toddlers kids need to eat every 2-3 hours, older kids do well with 3-4 hours’ gaps between meals and snacks.

Read here about How often kids 0 to 5 need to eat. 

2. Serve only water between meals and snacks.

Milk and juice are very filling and are best served at meals and snacks.

3. Offer a scheduled snack at least 1.5-2 hours before a meal to help children arrive at the table comfortably hungry.

Children often do not eat well at dinner because they graze non-stop all afternoon. If this is a problem you have to deal with, serve them a snack with some protein and/or fat in the afternoon and give them time to develop the appetite for dinner. See the links below for suggested snacks.

4. Provide satisfying and filling meals featuring several food groups.

Here are some examples:

  • Beans, rice, tomatoes, and avocados, milk, and fruit
  • Roasted chicken, mashed potatoes, green beans, bread, and dessert
  • Grilled fish, couscous, salad and fruit
  • Vegetable soup, bread, cheese and fruit

During the meals, allow your child to eat as much or as little as he wants.

5. Serve at least two food groups for a snack and offer mini-meals more often than prepackaged processed treats.

Some less conventional snacks ideas include:

a bowl of vegetable or bean soup
– sandwich
egg quesadilla
– a bowl of oatmeal
sliced tomatoes and avocados served with a tortilla wrap
chia seed pudding with fruit

For more snack ideas, check this Mega list of nutritious snacks for kids.

What are your kids’ favorite snacks?

Meal structure or grazing? What works best for kids?