Feeling unprepared without a banana on-hand every time you leave the house? You might be the parent of a toddler.
Do you feel like snacks are starting to take over your day? Is your toddler asking for snacks all day long? Or maybe you aren't sure if your baby or toddler is ready for snacks yet. Transitioning your child to regular meal and snack times and having a plan to offer nutritious, filling, foods can help manage some of the stress in the world of raising toddlers.
The Importance of Planned Snacks
Once your baby becomes a toddler, around 12 months of age, you might start to notice them getting hungry between meals. As a parent or caregiver, it is your job to provide regular, consistent meals and snacks. You decide what to serve and when to serve it, and where. Your toddler decides how much to eat of the food you have served. If you provide food to your toddler routinely, they will learn to trust the fact that there is food available.
My toddler was very clear at 11 months old that he was hungry between meals and would pull at my shirt the entire time I was making dinner. I slowly started introducing between-meal snacks. At first, I noticed he would eat a bit less at mealtimes and sometimes he wouldn’t touch his snack. It has now become a part of our routine to have a snack together between meals.
Sometimes snack-time will come and I will be scrambling to put something together that he hasn’t already eaten today. (Yes, on the rough days, he has a banana for breakfast and a morning snack...and an afternoon snack). This is why I created the Toddler Snack Builder Guide. I originally wrote down the ideas for myself to help with snack planning to complement my weekly meal plan. This way I can ensure that all the food we need for snacks is available.
Why are planned snacks so important for toddlers?
Between-meal snacks are important, in general, for toddlers because they provide additional calories needed for toddlers’ high activity levels. They are also an opportunity to provide some nutrients that may have been missed at mealtimes. Ensuring your child doesn’t go hungry by offering food at a planned snack-time can prevent pan-handling (constantly asking for treats...or bananas) and “hanger” (fussiness from hunger) between meals.
If your toddler doesn’t eat much at mealtimes, knowing a nutritious snack is on its way in a couple hours can help you to avoid putting pressure on your child to eat their meal.
Try to offer a planned meal or snack every 2-3 hours or so. You know your child, and your routine, best. They will probably let you know how often they need to be eating. Some toddlers do not need between meal snacks at all, some need to eat every 2 hours consistently.
Try to avoid offering milk between meals and instead offer it as part of a snack or after a meal as it can fill up your child too much. Water, however, should be offered frequently throughout the day. Breastfeeding may not need to be limited between meals unless you are noticing it impacting your child’s appetite at mealtimes.
Making snack times mindful
Often parents offer snacks as a form of distraction in the grocery store or in the car. I’ve been there. When you have a fussy, hungry, toddler with you and you just want to get your errands done without sparking a tantrum. The trouble with frequent snacks on-the-go is that it teaches children to eat mindlessly, without really focusing on what they are eating. This can lead to feeling unsatisfied by food and over-eating out of boredom. Eating in these scenarios also increases the risk of choking.
Try to take the time, as often as possible, to sit with your child and eat. Talk about the color of the food, the texture, the taste, where it came from. Avoid making any comments on how much your child is eating as this adds pressure and can make the eating experience unenjoyable.
Try to avoid calming a tantrum with snacks. If your toddler is obviously hungry, and it is an appropriate snack time, sit down with them and have something to eat. Offering a preferred food to get them to start crying is not ideal and can lead to emotional eating problems down the road.
What to offer?
Snacks can be an opportunity to offer additional fruit and vegetables that might not have been included at mealtimes. Offering a grain, starchy vegetable, or fruit provides your toddler with some carbohydrate which is needed for playtime energy. Toddlers seem to love these types of food; there is a theory that this is because their inner “nutritionist” is looking for foods that provide them more energy. Don’t be afraid to include these foods as they can encourage your toddler to get started eating.
Some examples of snack-friendly fruits and vegetables for toddlers:
- Cooked or shredded carrots (raw carrot sticks can be a choking hazard)
- Thinly sliced raw sweet peppers
Including a source of protein and/or fat can help make a snack more filling. This is especially important if there is a long gap between mealtimes. Rather than offering just crackers and cucumbers, something like hummus would provide both some protein and fat which can help slow down the digestion of the carbohydrates from the crackers. Including full-fat yogurt with some berries would have the same effect.
Some examples of snack-friendly protein/fat sources:
- Full-fat (3.25% M.F. or higher) plain yogurt
- Hard boiled egg
- Hemp Seeds
If you are looking at these lists of examples and thinking “my kid would never eat that!” remember, it is your job to choose what to offer your child. It is their job to decide whether they are going to eat it. Rather than offering two totally unfamiliar foods at a time, try offering one new food (say hemp seeds) with a familiar food (banana and peanut butter).
Snacks for Babies
Some parents choose to introduce “snack” foods even before 12 months of age. Things like puffs, yogurt snacks, and pouches. The issue with these is that they are often not very nutrient dense and can fill up your baby so they aren't hungry for other foods. They can also be quite high in sugar and salt which best to be kept to a minimum.
For a simple cheat sheet for building toddler snacks (with 20 different toddler friendly snack examples) subscribe to the Nourished Nest Nutrition newsletter for the free Toddler Snack Builder download.
The nutrition information contained in this resource is for informational purposes only. The content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician, registered dietitian, or other qualified healthcare provider with respect to any questions you my have regarding the nutritional requirements based upon a medical condition. Reliance upon any content provided in this resource is solely at your own risk. Speak with you health provider if you suspect your child may have a condition or delay that would prevent them from eating safely.