I’m starving” is a fairly familiar line uttered by children at the end of each school day. Consuming lunch up to three hours before pick-up, they no doubt are hungry. But how often do you provide an after-school snack only to find the munchkins won’t not eat dinner then ask for another snack again before bed? Frustrating isn’t it?
Most children aged under five need to eat every two to three hours. For older children, every three to four hours is sufficient. All children are born with the ability to regulate their appetite. They eat when they’re hungry and stop when full.
Spacing meals and snacks helps children respond to their appetite. If children are allowed to graze all day, they are never really hungry – or full. Over time, this can erode a child’s natural ability to tune into their appetite, leading to issues in maintaining a healthy weight.
If you’re offering a snack after school, consider when you are planning to serve dinner. If your children are returning home at 4pm and dinner is planned for 5pm, there’s little chance they are going to be hungry enough to participate. Two hours later at bed time, they’re certainly going to be asking for a snack again.
Planning the timing of meals and snacks ensures children sit at the table hungry and ready to eat. No one routine will suit every family. For some, serving an early dinner at 4.30pm will be the most successful way to ensure children are not over tired and able to successfully participate in the meal. For others, providing a healthy filling snack after school then serving a later dinner will work well.
Learning to eat a healthy, balanced diet comes from role modelling. Try to plan a dinner time routine when at least one parent can eat with the children, most of the time.
As we all know, children have a tendency to be fussy. In my experience, snacks can play a large role in contributing to finicky eaters. Because snacks are often considered as something to eat quickly on the go, I find many children are eating nutritionally empty snacks, such as crackers, chips and packets of sweet biscuits. Poor planning is often the culprit. Because children have small appetites and are prone to fussiness, you really need to think of every occasion they eat as an opportunity to offer good nutrition.
If providing an after-school snack works for your family routine, my top tip is to have planned snacks ready. Once the youngsters are helping themselves, you’ll find they invariably choose foods you don’t want them to eat and portion sizes can get out of control. An after-school snack should not fill them up completely but take the edge off their hunger so they maintain a healthy appetite at dinner.
My top suggestions for after-school snacks that focus on the core food groups and deliver plenty of nutrition include:
Smoothies – Ideally, try to incorporate a vegetable (eg, a green smoothie – my family’s favourite includes frozen mango, baby spinach, 1 green apple, water and ice) but fruit-based smoothies are good (frozen strawberries, strawberry yoghurt, water and ice is always a hit).
Kale chips – I’ve never seen my kids devour more greens then when I make a batch of these. Simply tear the kale leaves from the stingy vein that runs through it, toss with a small amount of extra virgin olive oil and a little salt and spread evenly over a baking sheet. Don’t over crowd the tray or the kale won’t crisp. Cook at 120 degrees Celsius for 20 to 25 minutes.
Grazing plate – Focus on your core food groups. I routinely offer wholegrain crackers, nuts, carrot, celery or cucumber sticks, nori sheets, cut up fruit and maybe a dip. Many children don’t get offered nuts since schools are generally nut free. Nuts are high in essential fatty acids so remembering to offer them outside school is a must.
Still complaining they’re hungry? Remind them dinner is on it’s way and if the complaints continue, offer cut up vegetables, such as carrot, celery etc.
If you’ve stuck to your routine and your children are still demanding a snack before bed, ask yourself whether they truly ate well at dinner? If yes, offer a healthy snack. Nine times out of ten, I find that older children are asking for a snack because they haven’t eaten well at dinner. If you suspect this is going on, it’s ok to hold onto your child’s dinner until bed time. When they tell you they’re hungry, offer to heat it up again.
If you need more advice on fussy eating head here.