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Toddler Snacking Mistakes

May 2024

Karen Ensle Ed.D., RDN, FADA, CFCS
Family & Community Health Sciences Educator
Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Union County

Toddlers are notorious nibblers. Their small bellies mean they can't eat a lot at one time, and their go-go-go nature means they don't want to sit at the table too long. Snacking can help add needed nourishment into a toddler's day but it must be healthy and small. Here are four strategies to be smarter about snacks.

Strategy 1: Snacking on the Go

Many parents carry an arsenal of munchies to dole out when they're on the go. But too often, snacks are given to distract or occupy kids while running errands or on long drives, not because the kids actually need food. Grazing on the go also makes it hard for children to focus on their food and listen to their internal signals of hunger and fullness. Eating in the car can be risky, too. If your child chokes, you may not be able to help right away.

Smarter Strategy: Carry one or two small and easy snacks — such as a banana or small container of whole-grain crackers — in case hunger strikes while you're out. Try other distractions first (such as a book or small toy) when you need to buy time.

Strategy 2: Timing Is Everything

It's frustrating when toddlers come to the table at mealtime and don't want to eat. It's true that their appetites tend to fluctuate day to day, but snacking also may be to blame. Snacks before mealtime can make kids less receptive to trying new foods at meals. Toddlers also may learn to prefer "snack foods" — such as pretzels and gummy fruit snacks — over "meal foods," which can make things even tougher.

Smarter Strategy: Space meals and snacks two to three hours apart. If your toddler's hunger doesn't seem to match up with your mealtimes, consider moving meals earlier or serving your child a portion of the meal, such as the veggies, while you finish prepping.

Strategy 3: Make Snacks Nutritious

Many snack foods that are marketed to kids are full of refined flour, added sugar and salt. Those foods are OK to eat occasionally, but they don't provide the nutrients your child needs (such as calcium, iron and fiber) and they teach kids to associate "snack" with "treat."

Smarter Strategy: During most snack times, serve the same kinds of foods you serve at mealtime, such as fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains including whole-wheat tortillas and bread, sources of protein such as hard-boiled eggs and hummus, and dairy products such as yogurt and cheese.

Strategy 4: Establish a Snack Schedule

Letting kids nibble all day not only ruins mealtime appetites, but also can set up unhealthy habits. Like adults, kids can learn to snack out of boredom. Mindlessly munching can lead to a pattern of overeating.

Smarter Strategy: Establish scheduled snack times. Most toddlers can go two hours between meals and snacks, so a mid-morning, mid-afternoon and evening snack may work well. Asking your toddler to wait may be tricky at first if munching on demand is the norm. By sticking to dependable meal and snack times, your child will feel reassured that there are plenty of opportunities to eat.