Snacks get bad press, but actually they are a great opportunity for getting extra nutrition into toddlers.
By their nature, toddlers often don’t eat well at mealtimes; it’s part of their development. Their appetites are variable, their stomach capacity is relatively small, and they think ‘dinner foods’ are boring.
Nevertheless, they are growing rapidly and so need quite a bit of nutrition. Relative to their size, they actually need more than you and I, and so this is where snacking, done correctly, can play a really important role.
When should you start giving your toddler snacks?
Babies don’t need snacks till after their first birthday. If you introduce snacks too soon, they’ll take less milk, essentially displacing nutrient-rich breast/formula milk with food, which is less nutrient-rich.
However, at around one, their nutritional requirements adjust and so snacks are a useful way of providing a more diverse range of nutrients.
What if I don’t think my toddler needs snacks yet?
Sometimes parents don’t want to give their toddlers snacks.
They’re worried they might not eat as well at mealtimes because they’ll be too full.
They worry that they’ll develop a sweet tooth and a preference for ‘snack’ foods.
Sometimes parents tell me that because their one-year-old isn’t yet walking, they don’t need the extra nutrition from snacks.
But none of this is correct.
How often should they have a snack?
Toddlers need to eat fairly frequently to meet their nutritional needs. A regular routine of 3 meals a day and 2 or 3 snack times can help them learn how to regulate their appetite and understand their hunger and fullness cues.
What this equates to is something to eat every 2.5 – 3 hours or so.
What should a balanced snack look like?
There are 5 groups of foods, and snacks should contain at least 3 of them. Incidentally, meals should include all 5. The food groups are:
Fruit and vegetables – ideally, choose fresh or frozen and avoid dried fruits and juices as snacks.
Starchy carbohydrates – for example, bread, crackers, breadsticks, pasta, oatcakes and breakfast cereals.
Protein foods – for example, nut butters, beans or lentils, meat and fish.
Dairy foods – for example, yoghurt, fromage frais, milk and cheese
Healthy fats and oils – for example, the olive-based spread you might use to butter toast or oil you use to cook with.
How big should a snack be?
Despite snacks needing to be made up of three different food groups, we still want them to be quite small.
Think of them as mini-meals.
I have a portion size mini-guide in my shop which details the weight of each part of the snack. You can find out more about it here.
What if my toddler doesn’t eat their snack?
This happens! Toddlers can be picky. It’s part of their developmental stage.
Your job is to provide a healthy nutritious snack and then take a step back. Your child’s job is to decide whether or not to eat it.
This is called the Division of Responsibility in Feeding.
What to do if my toddler asks for snacks all day long?
Ok, I’m going to give you a bit of tough love here.
You are the parent, and so it’s your job to decide when your child will eat.
It goes back to the Division of Responsibility in Feeding that I mentioned earlier.
You are responsible for what they eat, where they eat and when they eat, and your child is responsible for deciding whether to eat or not.
Do not let them snack all day long. Stand your ground, be firm and say “it’s not snack time yet, we’ll have something to eat after we come home from the shops”.
This is better than saying “no”. Instead, you are telling your child when snack time will be. And if you can link it to an activity, that will help them understand.
If your child is genuinely hungry, it may be that you need to take a look at your snacks. Did they contain 3 different food groups? Protein foods, wholegrain starchy carbohydrate foods and healthy fats and oils are the three food groups that keep tummies fuller for longer.
What’s the downside of frequent snacking?
Toddlers who snack frequently are actually grazing.
They surf on a feeling of ‘not hungry, not full’, ending up not learning about appetite signals. It’s not a matter of misinterpreting those internal feelings of being hungry – they simply just don’t experience them.
One of our jobs as parents is to help our children acknowledge those internal feelings of being hungry and teach them what they mean. We also need to show our children that eating takes the grumbling tummy away.
This is the start of appetite regulation.
Why it’s important to include ‘fun foods’ as snacks
You might not want to offer your child foods like chocolate or crisps. After all, we know that they are not the most nutritious or healthiest options. But when you restrict certain foods, you make them more desirable.
Restriction is a form of control, and this can lead to a child’s inability to self regulate their food intake, overindulging whenever the opportunity presents itself.
We know children who are restricted grow up to be teens and adults who eat for reasons other than hunger – such as to deal with emotions – eat fewer fruits and vegetables and tend to become overweight.
My advice is to keep these foods to a minimum, particularly for under twos. But have a plan for when they are allowed. That might be celebrations such as birthday parties, Halloween or on Saturday afternoons. The plan is entirely up to you and what’s best for your family.
Are there any foods to avoid?
Toddlers have immature kidneys that can process a lot of salt. Therefore, it’s best to keep salty foods to a minimum. Salty foods are packet, tinned or jar sauces, cured meats such as bacon, ham and sausages, smoked salmon, olives and cheeses.
It’s quite alright for them to join in with family meals, but cook from scratch whenever possible and don’t add seasoning during cooking. It’s actually not that good for us grown ups either!
Children are born with a preference for sweet foods. In fact, it’s more than a preference, it’s a desire. It’s an evolutionary thing to help them seek out breast milk for survival.
But because of this, they have a natural ‘sweet tooth’, which doesn’t need to be encouraged.
Keep sweet foods to a minimum, but don’t avoid them completely.
It’s also worth mentioning that naturally sweet foods such as fruit juices and raisins can hang around on the teeth for a long time and are linked to dental caries, so keep these to mealtimes rather than snacks.
Young children are still at risk of choking even though they’ve gone through the weaning phase and can eat safely. This is because their airway is small.
Therefore, make foods safer such as by using nut butters or ground nuts in place of whole nuts, and cutting grapes, cherry tomatoes and giant blueberries into smaller sizes. I have a whole blog on choking risk foods. If you want to see the full list, click here.
What might a not so healthy snack look like?
First of all, snacks that only contain one food aren’t going to give your toddler the nutrients they need.
For example, an apple might sound like a healthy snack for us, but a toddler would be better off having half an apple spread with peanut butter and a small glass of milk.
There is also a lot of food lining the supermarket shelves aimed at toddlers (you know those in bright coloured mini packs with Chase from Paw Patrol on the front?). Just be aware this doesn’t mean they are healthy or nutritious. These often contain added sugar, artificial ingredients and high fat.
Navigating the supermarket shelves is a skill in itself and I do have a masterclass inside my Happy Healthy Eaters Club that teaches you exactly how to do this.
10 ideas for snacks on the go
Peanut butter oatmeal energy balls and celery sticks
Fruit and nut flapjack with a carton of milk
Cheese, courgette and polenta muffins with carrot sticks
Pitta bread filled with hummus and pepper sticks
Mini cucumber and grated cheese sandwich
Dry low-medium sugar cereal (such as Cheerios and shreddies) and a satsuma
Breadsticks and cucumber with a boiled egg
Mexican pinwheel wrap with thin slices of apple
Apple oat bar with cucumber sticks
Mini crackers, a stick of cheese and a chopped apple
25 examples of healthy toddler snacks
Crumpet spread with peanut butter with strawberries
Fruit bread with butter and slices of kiwi
Tuna dip with toasted pitta fingers and sticks of cucumber
Toasted muffin with cream cheese and dried apricots
Breadsticks and carrot sticks with hummus
Mini cheese on toast with a satsuma
Greek yoghurt with tinned peaches and a sprinkle of ground almonds
Scotch pancake with almond butter and persimmon
Veggie pizza roll ups with baby corn
Toasted muffin spread with pate (only once a week) and lettuce leaves
Crackers with red lentil dip and slices of beetroot
Buttered wholemeal toast with any dinner leftovers on top!
Frozen yoghurt lollies with a crispbread
Chapati with cheddar cheese and raisins
Malt loaf spread with peanut butter and raspberries
Speedy mackerel pate on toast with quartered cherry tomatoes
Oatcakes with mozzarella and thin slices of apple
Pasta tubes with grated cheese and peas
Half a bagel with cream cheese and slices of banana
Cottage cheese with a finger salad (peppers, carrot, celery) and breadsticks
Cauliflower cheese bites with slices of pear
Melba toast spread with avocado and green peppers
Cinnamon roasted chickpeas with pineapple
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