Family, Kids & Relationships

Here’s what to say when your kid is “full” but then asks for snacks

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If your kid refuses meals but then says they’re hungry again soon afterwards, you’re not alone. It’s a frustrating, and very common, problem many parents of picky eaters face every day. Rest assured, doctors generally agree that it’s OK for kids to go to bed feeling hungry from time to time. However, you might want to allow a small, healthy bedtime snack — especially for toddlers, who need smaller, more frequent meals to keep their smaller bodies feeling full, and to fuel their rapid development.

How to minimize meal-skipping

Here are some tips for reducing the times your kid skips a meal and then begs for snacks:

  • Minimize the distinction between meals and snacks—they’re just different times to eat, but they should all be varieties of healthy food.
  • Be sure to offer at least one familiar food at mealtime that they typically eat. Many dinner foods are mixed ingredients (i.e. casserole and soups) and may be unfamiliar, so without something “safe” to try, some kids will choose to be hungry.
  • Make kids a “snack-like” dinner. Present an assortment of the same healthy foods they typically enjoy as a snack, but in smaller portions. You can even try fun containers like bento boxes or muffin tins.
  • Don’t force kids to eat every last bite on their plate. This can set them up for an unhealthy relationship with food, and create a power struggle where they refuse to eat dinner just to exert some control.
  • Don’t allow snacks for 2 hours before each meal.
  • If they frequently beg for snacks before dinner, try moving dinner earlier if possible.
  • Create a food schedule so kids know when to expect meals and snacks, and so you can refer to it as needed. You might say something like, “I hear that you’re hungry. Lunch is over now, and our next snack is at 2:30. Want to help me set a timer?”

Determining whether to offer a snack

Experts say that it’s the parent’s job to provide nutritious food, and it’s the child’s job is to decide whether and how much of it to eat. They won’t starve if they go to bed hungry, but there’s also little reason not to let them have a small, healthy snack if you choose. 

Depending on why they’re asking for a snack, you can determine whether or not it makes sense to offer them a snack. Here are some reasons your child may be asking for a snack after refusing a meal:

  • Too many snacks or milk before the meal
  • They felt too pressured to eat at the table
  • They’re exerting control or engaging in a power struggle
  • No “safe” or familiar foods were offered
  • Fear of the unknown or unfamiliar textures
  • They were distracted at mealtime
  • Medical reasons (i.e. constipation, food allergy, tooth pain, etc.)
  • They did eat enough but now they’re bored, putting off bedtime, etc.

If their request for snacks is an ongoing, persistent problem that is unrelated to any medical or mental health concern, it may be helpful to set a firm boundary around snack and mealtimes to avoid encouraging the behavior any further.

What to say when your child asks for snacks

If your child asks for a snack shortly after saying they were “full” at mealtime, here’s how to respond with empathy and kindness while still holding your boundary:

First, acknowledge their feelings. You can say, “I bet you are hungry. I noticed you didn’t eat much of your dinner. Why was that?”

If you choose not to offer them a snack, you can say, “I get it. Dinnertime is over though, and now it’s time for bed. It’s important for our bodies to rest at bedtime, so let’s pick a story to read, and tomorrow morning you can help me make breakfast if you want.”

If you choose to offer them a snack, you can say, “You didn’t see any foods that you recognized with dinner tonight besides the bread? Everything was all mixed up? Okay. Next time I make pasta casserole, I’ll leave out some plain pasta, too. I’m done cooking today, but I can help you get a little plate together. Do you want cheese cubes, yogurt, or carrot slices?

Many kids go through a picky eating phase at some point, and most still get enough calories and nutrition to thrive. However, if you’re concerned about your child’s relationship with food, consult your pediatrician or a mental healthcare provider. 

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