Tummy Times / The Feeding Schedule for Young Kids that Leads to Healthier Eating 2021.01.31

The Feeding Schedule for Young Kids that Leads to Healthier Eating

Melanie Potlock

If your soon-to-be toddler still requests food throughout the day, do your best to establish a regular meal and snack schedule.

It’s tempting to respond to each request to eat by offering a few crackers or a sip of milk, but children who learn to graze throughout the day tend to stick with the same types of food and don’t always expand their variety to the vegetables and fresh foods encountered at mealtime.

The best feeding schedule for toddlers to younger school-age kids is the one that includes a secret sauce served with both snacks and mealtimes.  The secret ingredient? It’s hunger.  By spacing out meals and snacks into a predictable schedule, the young human brain learns to signal the body when it’s time to eat, just like adults know when it’s lunchtime at the office.  Our bodies feel hunger on a periodic schedule if we fill our stomachs about the same time every day. 

The ideal schedule includes breakfast, lunch and dinner, with a small snack in between each meal.  Remember to limit snacks to 1 tablespoon per age for toddlers to kids up to age six. After age six, some kids may need bigger snacks if participating in sports or other physical activities that require extra energy.  

A two-year-old would get 2 tablespoons of snack along with water, unless there are special medical circumstances for more volume.  A snack is just enough to hold us over till mealtime, when children learn to fill up on a wide variety of offerings throughout the week at breakfast, lunch and dinner.  In other words, kids can always have more at meals, if they are still hungry.  But with a snack, there are no seconds.  Remember, meals = more; snacks = no seconds.

Snacks and meals are known as “eating times” and the two to two-and-a-half hours until a meal are known as “growing times.”  From as young as age two, it might look like this, depending on your child’s nap and activity schedule:

  • EATING TIME - breakfast at about 8 a.m. (Meals last about 20 minutes.)
  • GROWING TIME - about two to two-and-a-half hours (This is the time we build hunger for another meal.)

  • EATING TIME - a small snack at about 10:30 a.m. (A snack is just a little bit of nutrition to ensure we don’t get too hungry and have a meltdown.)
  • GROWING TIME - about two to two-and-a-half hours (It’s time to boost hunger again, so that toddlers are willing to try new foods at lunch.)

  • EATING TIME - lunch at 12:30 p.m.
  • GROWING TIME – about two to two-and-a-half hours or slightly more, depending on nap time or other activities that cause us to adjust the schedule slightly. (For toddlers, this growing time would include an afternoon nap. Toddlers need regular, scheduled naps. Sleep helps promote growth because growth hormones are secreted during nap and nighttime sleep cycles.)

  • EATING TIME - a small snack upon waking at about 3:00 p.m.
  • GROWING TIME – about two to two-and-a-half hours (Time to go out and play and build up hunger for dinner!)

  • EATING TIME – dinner at 5:30 p.m.

When the days are longer, and children stay up later, add a bedtime snack.  This is an ideal time to include some protein and a nutritious drink other than water to ensure a good night’s sleep but be careful that the bedtime snack doesn’t accidentally become a second dinner.  It’s also tempting to make the end of day snack special, like ice cream or some cookies and milk.  Although the occasional treat is fun and certainly special, be sure to offer it just on occasion. When kids expect a treat shortly after dinnertime, they tend to skip the vegetables and healthy options at dinner in anticipation of dessert right before bedtime. 

Now, let’s be real about scheduling.  Parent consistently by responding to your child’s requests away from snack and mealtimes by saying “Yes, you’re getting hungry. We’ll have a snack right after we are done playing outside.” Or “I’m getting hungry too!  It’s not eating time yet.  Right now, it’s growing time.  Let’s take the doggy for a walk to the park and when we get there, we’ll have a little snack before we swing.”  For very young toddlers, keep your explanation shorter and simple: “It’s playtime.  Swing first, then snack.”  All these options communicate growing times vs. eating times and confirm for your child that you understand that he’s getting hungry while reassuring him that food is coming soon. 

A mealtime schedule teaches children to wait, which is a new skill for many toddlers.  In today’s world of convenience and technology, where many things appear almost instantaneously, waiting can be hard!  Help your little one understand that a little bit of hunger is good thing and that some delicious food is on the way…right after we play.

Melanie Potock, MA, CCC-SLP

International speaker on the topic of feeding babies, toddlers, and school-age kids.

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