Toddler Snacking: Is It Really Necessary?

I think all caregivers know the power of snacks when it comes to young children. I certainly do – I never left the house with Glo-Worm without a Tupperware of cereal, a granola bar, or a bottle of milk that I could give to her in the stroller when we were walking home from our daily trip to the EYC. I did it partly because I knew she’d start to get hungry, and when she got hungry, tantrums quickly followed, and partly because it guaranteed that she’d have something to do in the stroller that wouldn’t be followed five minutes later by her hurling it in annoyance to the ground.

We had a 10-15 minute walk home, depending on if I had to pick up lunch for myself, and after a few trips where Glo-Worm twisted and fought against the stroller straps while screaming at the top of her lungs, I got tired of the well-meaning old ladies clucking at me and telling me to “get that baby home for a nap!” So, Glo-Worm’s snacking was as much for me as it was for her – a means to an end.

I figured, based on what I’ve done for now close to 11 years as a part-time babysitter and nanny (I don’t count the six years I spent teenage babysitting, though they helped me become the nanny I am today!), that snacking is just something you DO with toddlers. Cue my surprise when someone I respect very much, NotMaryP, posted a blog yesterday about how she’s trying to cut out snacking from her daily routine with the kids. Hmm. Can you do that? I asked myself.

NotMaryP talks about how children, beyond the age of about 15 months, really don’t need to eat on demand. Eating on demand is mostly due to boredom or to caregivers, like myself, wanting to prevent tantrums en route to somewhere or simply in general. There is something to be said about the fact that low blood sugar leads to bad moods. In my family, we call it getting “hangry”, a combination of the words “hungry” and “angry”. I’ve had my hangry moments for sure, and I can recognize when a bad mood is being brought on by low blood sugar in young children. There’s a loss of energy that happens first, and then the tantrum begins. So, in that case, I support snacking, because I think it’s unfair to let a child get to that point.

But, NotMaryP says that if children are eating full meals that have the correct nutrients they need, these blood sugar dips aren’t going to happen. I’ve posted before about how hard it’s been to get Glo-Worm to eat, and now I wonder if it’s because I did let her snack at intervals throughout the day. I tried NotMaryP’s tried and true method of offering Glo-Worm’s lunch to her several times during the afternoon if she wouldn’t eat it at lunchtime, and found that if she wouldn’t eat on our loose schedule, she would eventually eat later. Before that, I’d been throwing up my hands and offering her snack after snack to get SOMETHING into her before we had to go out or I had to put her down for a nap. Hmm.

I think there’s something to be said about the fact that our culture snacks when we’re bored. I’ve found myself doing it, and I think it’s probably part of the reason that I’m overweight. I have tried cutting out extraneous snacks and doing something like writing, or walking, or doing a household chore, when I find myself bored. It’s been helping and I’ve been losing weight. And I also think it’s true for our kids. I think that kids will eat their meals, which are typically full of the nutrients they need, when they’re not being offered snacks of simple carbs or sugars.

NotMaryP is trying this with her youngest toddlers, who are about 17 months of age. I’m interested to see how it goes on, because I think that offering a small piece of fruit or a glass of water when a child complains of hunger outside of eating good meals might be the ticket to this “I don’t like it, so I’m not going to eat it” stuff that they pull at meals when they are allowed to snack routinely through the day. As for boredom in the stroller or en route to places, I’ll have to devise toys and games to play that aren’t going to be thrown contemptuously out of the stroller five minutes later to keep boredom at bay.

Another thing she suggests is to stop giving children milk as a drink during the day. She, and other caregivers I know, like Hannah at Hodgepodge & Strawberries, offer milk to their charges at mealtimes only, and then it’s only one cup before they’re offered water if they’re still thirsty. Milk is a food, not a drink, and I think that it does fill the stomach up to the point where hunger is no longer an issue for toddlers. I noticed that when we cut down on Glo-Worm’s milk, she started eating more at mealtimes. I think it’s definitely food for thought, as it were.

I’m surprised at how NotMaryP’s post brought up a lot of defensiveness for me. I went in thinking, “This is going to be poppycock” because we all know what happens when a hungry child needs to wait for something to bring his blood sugar back up. But the things that she says make a lot of sense. If a child is getting three square meals a day, why does he also need to snack constantly?

Interesting revelations, and I’m going to be very curious to read how her experiment goes!

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