My four-year-old is hungry all the time, a mom told me the other day. And she wasn’t sure what to do about it. This is the way many of my conversations with other parents start. At the playground, in the grocery store, huddled around pizza boxes at birthday parties.
Sometimes I just listen, when it’s more about having someone to talk to. Because they’re really asking the same thing we all want to know: Is my kid going to be okay?
Other times I’ll toss out the best advice I’ve read lately or better yet, what works with my own four kids.
But every family varies so much that it usually seems like one answer just doesn’t cover enough ground. So I went looking for more answers. From real experts. Like these.
Expert advice about feeding healthy, happy kids
This is a new idea for Foodlets, a Q&A: One question with a handful of different suggestions from three different experts. You could try one of them, all of them, or none of them.
And that third option is a real thing. All the planets have to align in order to make a successful change as a parent. You’ve got to have a plan, the stamina to carry out the plan, and kids who are in a space where they’re cooperative enough to receive the benefits of the plan. If that’s not where you are right now, this might not be the time to pull the trigger. That’s fine. Trust me, there will be a time.
But if you are ready, here’s today’s question along with three solutions from women who are not just food writers, but also nutrition experts and moms.
THE Question: My 4-year-old says he’s hungry all the time
He basically grazes all day but I feel bad to deny him food if he’s hungry. The problem is that I have a hard time getting him to eat anything nutritious for lunch and dinner. Should I just figure he’s gotten all of his calories for the day by now, or try to get him on more of a schedule?
6 solutions for kids who are hungry all the time
Who do kids say they’re hungry all the time? Sometimes they’re bored, or associate certain activities with eating (like watching videos). These are both habits I learned to curb as an adult but think of how much easier that would’ve been to nip in the bud as a kid. Here are six ways to do it for yours.
1. Create “Eating Zones” & “No-eating Zones”
Create a loose schedule for meals and snacks. I call these Eating Zones. In between the Eating Zones are No-Eating Zones.
Let your son eat as much as he wants during the Eating Zones. Provide mostly healthy foods, but include some treats as well. – Dina Rose PhD, founder of It’s Not About Nutrition
2. Supply a never-ending water bottle
While it is pretty normal for little kids to skip dinner from time to time, structure in meals and snacks is extremely important. As a four-year-old, he should be eating three meals and 2-3 small snacks, with a gap of at least 2-3 hours between eating opportunities. In the gap, offer water and fill it up as often as he likes. -Natalia Stasenko MS, RD, CDN, who writes at Tribeca Nutrition
*Lots of kids think they’re hungry when they’re tired or thirsty. This is how I changed the way I handled my kids’ requests for snacks.*
3. Want a pre-dinner snack? Serve tons of veggies
My younger son is a non-stop grazer and it can really interfere with dinner. That matters because dinner may be the only time everyone is together and sharing a meal all day. My pre-dinner snack strategy is simple: no snacks except veggies in the hour before we eat. That has really helped at my house! -Sally Kuzemchak, RDN, author of “Dinnertime Survival Guide”
*Here’s the super simple pre-dinner game/snack that works wonders with my brood! Hint: There’s a platter of baby carrots at the start…and nothing left when they’re done.*
4. Talk about what it feels like to be full
Introduce a conversation about hunger and fullness to help your son identify these feelings. And talk about other reasons for eating (such as his emotions). Do this away from the table and, most importantly, while your son is developing these skills, allow him to eat even if he’s not hungry (during an Eating Zone of course) so you don’t inadvertently teach him to say he’s hungry just to get access to food. This is complicated business and it takes time so don’t expect results overnight. -Dina Rose PhD, author of “It’s Not About the Broccoli“
5. Serve “meal foods” for snacks
Try making most of your snacks from “meal foods” instead of traditional “snack foods”. If snacks are things like granola bars and Goldfish crackers, meal foods won’t seem very fun by comparison! So if your child likes to snack, build snacks from meal foods like veggies with dip, nut butter on apples or whole grain crackers, even a small amount of dinner leftovers can be a snack. -Sally Kuzemchak, RDN, who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition
6. Or bring his favorite snacks to dinner
This idea works in reverse as well. If your son asks for fruit, yogurt, crackers, or other “fun” foods throughout the day, switch things around and include some of his favorites with dinner. Cheese and crackers could be a starter. Offer yogurt topped with fresh fruit for dessert, and so on. The key here is not to turn every dinner into a collection of his most liked foods but rather integrate his favorites into a meal the whole family can enjoy. -Natalia Stasenko MS, RD, CDN, who leads the e-course 5 Steps to Raising a Happy Eater
For more help getting started, check out our simple snack guide, filled with tons of fresh ingredients and easy-to-make recipes, like our kids’ current favorite: Rainbow smoothies.
Or browse our kid-tested dinner recipes. Every one is practical enough for busy parents and tasty enough for your whole family. Here’s the family favorite I always double. One for now, another in the freezer (which makes a great dish to take to friends in need!)
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