Welcome to the first story in our new Beanstalk series: "Is This Normal?" Designed to answer your questions about child behavior, together we'll explore topics that matter to you in a judgment-free zone. Send your burning questions to firstname.lastname@example.org. All questions will be kept anonymous.
I've barely finished my dinner when my oldest child, apparently done with the untouched chicken in front of him, nonchalantly brings his plate to the sink (the universal sign of "I'm done" in our home), then WALKS STRAIGHT TO THE KITCHEN CABINETS to look for snacks.
Right. After. Dinner.
It's not much better with my youngest, who, after putting on her PJs and brushing her teeth, almost always tells me, in a desperate and small voice that's hard to ignore:
Because of course she is; she hardly ate her dinner.
So herein lies the question: To feed, or not to feed? Should you let your toddlers or older children skip their dinners, then fill up on snacks before bed?
Doctors say no.
"It is absolutely OK to go to bed without dinner," said Elham Raker, a Los Angeles pediatrician and founder of AskDr.Mom.com, a site designed to give parents quick and personalized medical advice. "I think this is much harder for parents than kids. The kids will be OK."
Of course, when we're talking about toddlers, there's some wiggle room. If a child is going through a growth spurt — or is asking for a snack long enough before lights-out that you know it's not just a ruse to stay up — Elham says go ahead and feed. Similarly, if kids have eaten their dinner and are simply still hungry, it's OK to offer healthy snacks before bed.
But the important thing is to make sure dinner isn't denied. At least not every day.
So how do you convert your serial snacker into a mealtime master? Here are some tips for changing the pattern:
When They're Hungry After Skipping Dinner... Offer Their Dinner Again
This one might seem a little on the "tough love" side—especially for very young kids—but it's the message that counts. That being, if kids skip dinner then beg for snacks, they need to first eat their dinner. After all, dinner Is what matters, and as long as you've offered something nutritious to your child you know she will eat, she should eat it. So cover that plate with plastic wrap and be ready to whip it out of the fridge when your child comes begging for food.
Don't Force Children to "Clean Their Plates"
Sometimes, refusing dinner can be a part of the mealtime power struggle. If parents push too hard, children may push back just because they can. Consequently, it's important to help kids feel relaxed and in control of their mealtimes.
When your kids are done eating, Raker recommends asking them if they feel full. If the answer is yes, then say, 'Great, stop eating."
Enforce a "No Snacks" Rule 1-2 Hours Before Dinner
If your child has been snacking nonstop all afternoon, there's a good chance she won't be hungry when she plops down at the dinner table. So make a rule: The kitchen is closed starting one to two hours before dinner. For toddlers, a shorter time is recommended since their tummies are tiny and they're growing so quickly; but for older kids, two hours is fine. Let them be hungry for dinner!
If you must give out pre-dinner snacks (pediatricians say toddlers should eat something small every two hours or so), make them suitable substitutes: carrot sticks, apple slices, garbanzo beans, frozen blueberries, peanut butter on celery sticks, etc. That way, if your child does refuse dinner, at least you know you've gotten good foods into her beforehand.
If Your Kids Seem Starving Just Before Dinner—Have Dinner Earlier
In my experience, kids always raid the cabinets just before dinnertime. This gives us two options: Guard the cabinets like a prison warden—or move dinnertime to match the kids' hunger patterns. When I manage to get dinner made earlier, my kids eat better. Simple.
Of course, this can be hard when one (or both) parents don't get home from work until late, but Raker says it's better to make an early dinner for the kids; then let them join their parents for a snack later in the evening. That way, they've filled their bellies with nutritious foods, and you still get to sit with them while you eat (this also makes your dinnertime a little less stressful).
When It Comes to Bedtime Snacks, Not All Foods Are Created Equal
While snacking before bed isn't ideal, sometimes it's OK—especially if kids have had an early dinner and are still awake a few hours after that. But be sensible about what you offer. Nighttime snacks should come from the fridge, not the pantry, Raker says. So choose snacks like cheese, yogurt or fruit—not chips, pretzels or cookies.
And, always make sure your children brush their teeth after eating, even if they've already done it pre-snack attack.
Resist Bedtime Pleas
If your kids are all tucked in and suddenly declaring that they're starving—resist! Those are the times that kids can wait until morning (They'll be OK).
"Honestly, a lot of times I think it’s more of an 'I don't want to go to bed thing,'" Raker says. "Of course, as a mom, you’re worried, 'What if they don't eat?' But I think you have to be lovingly strict, or you’re going be too taken advantage of."
Set Up a Food Schedule
According to Jill Castle, a pediatric dietitian and author of The Smart Mom's Guide to Healthy Snacking: How to Raise a Smart Snacker from Tot to Teen (available here) parents should set up a schedule for meals and snacks, starting when kids are toddlers. A good rule of thumb, she says, is to give three meals and two to three snacks per day.
This is for a couple of reasons, Castle says. For one, toddlers still have "high nutrient needs, but little tummies" — so every bite counts for growth and development! Secondly, eating every two to three hours helps little ones recognize the signs of hunger and fullness, which can promote self-regulation of eating.
"And yes, too many snacks throughout the day may interfere with an appetite for dinner," Castle said.