When it comes to meals and snacks, I am a big proponent of structure and planning in advance. Kids need to eat regularly because their stomachs are small and they need a lot of nutrition.
But they need to rely on us, adults, to create the schedule that allows them to fuel regularly. Your child’s schedule will be changing as he is growing. So it’s very important to understand what exactly to expect at each age and stage. When meals and snacks are regular and spaced appropriately, your child will have an appetite for meals and learn to respond appropriately to his hunger-satiety signals. And you will stop hearing a constant “Snack! Snack! Snack!” :).
Disclaimer: all the sample schedules you see below are just examples. Please do not apply them to your family without first considering your lifestyle, medical conditions, your child’s age, and eating abilities, and other individual circumstances. Instead, use them as a template and create a schedule that works for your family, especially if you have children of different ages. OK, so let’s dive into how often our children need to eat.
How often do babies need to eat?
From 0 to 6 months: If you are breastfeeding, you will most likely do it on demand, responding to your baby’s hunger and satiety cues. With formula, your feedings will be more structured from the beginning, but it is still important to stay attuned to your baby’s hunger/satiety cues.
From 6-7 months Your baby still breastfeeds on-demand or regularly drinks formula, but as you start introducing solids, she will be joining you at the family mealtimes more often. At this point, your baby only eats solids 1-2 times a day and it does not matter which times of the day you pick, although morning or midday works best for many families and gives you more daytime to watch for the signs of an allergic reaction.
Sample schedule for a 6-month-old baby: 6.30 am or upon waking up – Breast milk or formula 8 am Breakfast – Solids 10 am Midmorning snack – Breast milk or formula 12 pm Lunch – Solids OR breast milk or formula 3 pm Mid-afternoon snack – Breast milk or formula 5.30 Dinner – Breast milk or formula 7 pm Before bed – Breast milk or formula
From 7-8 months From about 7-8 months, many babies start eating 2 or more solid meals a day while still snacking on breastmilk or formula 3 or more times a day. By 9-10 months it is reasonable to substitute one breastmilk or formula snack with solids. Try to space all eating opportunities throughout the day at regular intervals. I know it is especially hard with breastfeeding, but just starting to think about more structure in feeds will already help you move in the right direction.
Sample schedule for a 9-month-old baby: 6.30 Upon waking up – Breast milk or formula 8 am Breakfast – Solids 10 am Midmorning snack – Solids 12 pm Lunch – Solids+ breast milk or formula 3 pm Mid-afternoon snack – Breast milk or formula 5.30 pm Dinner – Solids + breast milk or formula 7 pm Before bed (optional) – Breast milk or formula Need more help starting solids with a baby?
How often do children need to eat?
From 1 to 3 years From about 12 months your child will be eating 3 meals and 2-3 solid snacks a day, spaced 2-3 hours apart. If breastfeeding, try to do it during or right after these eating opportunities.
Sample schedule for a 2-year-old:
7 am Breakfast
10 am Midmorning snack
12 pm Lunch
3 pm Mid-afternoon snack
7 pm Optional bedtime snack (can be milk, breastmilk or solids)
Children older than 3 years From around 3 years, your child may only need 2 snacks a day, in addition to 3 set meals. The evening snack eventually becomes redundant but your child may need it for longer if his eating at dinner is hit or miss. You may also notice that you can push the evening meal a little later so it is easier for you all to eat dinner together.
From around 4-5 years, many kids do not get morning snacks at school anymore, so they are down to 3 meals and 1 snack a day, with an optional evening snack. Most kids continue to rely on the afternoon snack in the afternoon to refuel after school.
For some, it may become one of the biggest eating opportunities of the day, because they are so hungry after school. If this is your case, consider converting it into a super-snack.
Sample schedule for a 4-year-old:
7 am Breakfast
10 am Midmorning snack (usually phased out by 4-5 years)
12 pm Lunch
3-3.30 pm Mid-afternoon snack
6-6.30 pm Dinner
7.30-8 pm Optional bedtime snack (can be phased out if kids eat dinner well)
Why grazing, even on healthy stuff, can make eating worse
If your child didn’t eat much at one meal, it’s tempting to chase him around all day offering a bite of this or a bite of that. Or perhaps you’ve left “healthy food” out within reach or created a special snack box/drawer your child can rummage through when the munching mood hits. The truth is, grazing undermines kids’ appetites and does not help them to eat better. Kids need to rely on a reliable feeding rhythm in order to eat well.
Check out what this little 2-year-old grazer ate in a day:
• 6:30 am 8 oz whole milk – 160 calories
• 8:30 1/2 cup strawberries 1/2 croissant – 140 calories
• 10 am 1/2 cup applesauce in a pouch on a way to swimming class – 50 calories
• 11:30 am 1oz small pack of fruit snacks in a grocery store to distract when mom was shopping – 105 calories \
• 12:30 Not interested in lunch
• 12:45 A fruit and vegetable pouch since lunch left untouched – 80 calories
• 1 pm 8 oz of milk before nap – 160 calories
• 3 pm 1 oz of cheerios and 1/3 apple for a snack – 140 calories
• 5 pm Starving on the way from the park, mom gives another applesauce pouch – 50 calories
• 6 pm Not interested in dinner
• 7 pm 8oz bottle of whole milk before bed – 160 calories
• Total calories: 1045 calories
Most 2-year-olds need only around 1000 calories a day. This toddler has met his caloric needs, but it may seem that he barely ate anything. Unfortunately, he was never hungry for main meals, because when we graze non-stop, our bodies just do not have time to get hungry. Moreover, he may be missing some nutrition because most food he eats is of the kid-friendly “snacky” type. And he has definitely missed the learning opportunities that happen during shared meals with adults. Besides, most popular kids’ snacks lack sufficient protein and fat, so they do not fill up the kids as sit-down meals would.
How to transition from grazing to structure:
It may not be easy at first, but once you transition from grazing to meal and snack structure, you will never look back. You will not have to cook and clean up non-stop or carry bags of snacks everywhere you go. Here are some steps to make this transition easier.
- Know how many meals and snacks your child needs a day. See the sample schedules above.
- With your family’s lifestyle in mind, make a mental note of the times when your child seems to be at his hungriest. For many kids, it’s breakfast and lunch. School-age children are usually starving when they get home back from school.
- Plan regular eating opportunities for the whole family, maximizing calories and nutrition for meals when your kids are the hungriest. Keep your kids’ ages in mind and be flexible. For example, your 2-year-old may be getting a morning snack at home but your 5-year-old may be doing just fine waiting till lunch at school. Or you may feed your 9-month-old his main evening meal 3-4 pm and allow him to have fun and practice self-feeding when the whole family eats dinner at 6 pm.
- Implement the “Kitchen is closed” rule, where food and drink, except water, are not available outside the set eating times.
- Have a talk with your family, explain the new rules, and write your schedule on a piece of paper. For younger children, you can use drawings of a clock and food to make the idea clearer. If your child is used to grazing, he may protest but as far as you hold the ground and offer balanced meals and snacks at regular intervals, she will soon adjust.