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Bad Toddler Eating Habits to Break: Excessive Reliance on Snacks

We're back with entry #2 in our toddler eating series with expert holisitic nutritionist, Natasha Uspensky. Make sure you're caught up on our first tip about using food to pacify your child and then ready on...

Bad Habit #2: Excessive Reliance on Snacks

Why this is a bad habit: This is a tough one for many American parents to get over, because snacking is so ingrained in our culture. Contrary to what you may have heard, snacking throughout the day is not a healthy eating habit, which is a secret that most of the rest of the world is privy to. Snacking fills up your toddler so they eat less during actual mealtimes; it raises insulin levels; it can cause overeating; and it sets the body up for poor metabolic functioning down the road.

Most other cultures, and indeed, the healthiest and slimmest cultures in the world, eschew snacking for three square meals a day. This is how our bodies are meant to digest food, and how our ancestors consumed it. Now to be clear, little bodies eat less than adults, and there are definitely times when a healthy snack is necessary — if mealtime is delayed, if your toddler doesn’t nurse or drink milk (or milk alternative) at all, or if your toddler didn’t eat much at their last meal, for example. But if you find that your toddler routinely needs several snacks between meals, there’s a good chance those meals aren’t providing the balanced nutrition they need (or that they’re eating for comfort or out of boredom).

Most toddlers who still nurse or drink milk need no more than one snack a day, between lunch and dinner. The snack should be regular, routinized, and scheduled, really more like a mini-meal than a snack. Toddlers who no longer nurse and don’t really drink milk (or milk alternatives) may need two scheduled snacks, one mid-morning, and one mid-afternoon. Food should not be offered outside of these scheduled mealtimes!

Long-term impact: When we grow up snacking, we continue that habit throughout our lives. Snackers are much more likely to become hypoglycemic, to struggle with weight, and to spend an unhealthy amount of time thinking about food. As adults, eating three healthy meals a day, with minimal snacks, helps our body to burn body fat for fuel, helps to stabilize our blood sugar and speed up metabolism, and allows us to focus on other things between meals.

What to do instead:

The right healthy eating habits eliminate over-reliance on snacking!

  • Institute regular mealtimes. Children, especially toddlers, thrive on routine. Having a set mealtime schedule that you try not to veer from too often teaches a toddler’s body when to expect food and encourages them to eat more during their set mealtimes, therefore minimizing between-meal hunger. If you find that a snack between lunch and dinner is necessary, make it scheduled and routinized, just like every other meal.

  • Create eating rituals. Meals should be enjoyed seated, at a table. And this goes for a scheduled snack as well! The biggest problem with snacking is when it becomes an all-day, on the go habit, as opposed to a scheduled mini-meal. Follow the same healthy mealtime rituals (hand washing, sitting down, no screens, etc.) for all your child’s meals, including their scheduled snack, and avoid eating on the go, in the stroller or car, or while playing.

  • Encourage balanced meals. If a “meal” for your toddler is some fruit, a baby food pouch, or cheese and crackers, they will of course be hungry between meals! Just because your littles are little, doesn’t mean their bodies don’t need actual meals. A balanced toddler meal includes vegetables (preferably something green), a healthy, clean protein (beans, organic tofu, eggs, low-mercury fish, organic chicken, or occasional dairy), an optional whole grain (brown rice, oats, quinoa), and a small serving of fruit. If you are overdoing it with one of these food groups while neglecting another, your child will not receive the fuel they need to stay satiated until their next meal.

  • Breastfeed or offer a healthy milk or milk alternative for the first 2-3 years. Nursing your toddler when they wake, before or after naps, and before bed gives them some added healthy fats and fuel to “fill in the blanks” between meals. If you’re not breastfeeding, offering a cup of hemp or almond milk (with added coconut oil to increase the fat content) works just fine. If you want to give cow’s milk, make sure it is well-sourced from grass-fed cows, organic, and full fat. When we eventually consolidate our daytime nursing sessions, I’ll be giving M a cup of homemade almond milk with added coconut oil to tide her over between lunch and dinner.

  • Offer a healthy fat with every meal. Often times, littles get hungry between meals because they are not getting enough healthy fats in their diet. Avocados, fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, coconut oil, organic grass-fed butter, full fat organic yogurt, and organic full-fat cheese (though I recommend going easy on this one) are all great options, one of which should be included at every meal. Encourage variety between dairy and non-dairy options.

  • Model regular eating. If you yourself are a “grazer” or snacker, this is the habit your child will pick up on. Set regular mealtimes for yourself as well, so your child doesn’t see you eating between meals. If it’s not something they see happening, they will be much less likely to request food between meals!

  • Keep them hydrated. Often times thirst is mistaken for hunger (in kids as well as adults), and food is given when water was all that the body needed! Keep a water bottle with you at all times, and regular offer water to your toddler throughout the day.

Natasha Uspensky is a mama, holistic nutritionist, wellness expert, and founder of The Organic Beauty Blog. She believes in a holistic approach to wellness; that true health and happiness come from achieving a sense of balance in all areas of life — from food, movement and environment, to relationships, community and career. Through her private practice, writing, and online programs, she works with women all over the world to heal their health, and start living the lives they crave, in a body they love. She is the founder of NU Health & Wellness, and has been featured in Marie Claire, Redbook, Livestrong, All-Parenting, Giada Weekly, and Mind Body Green. Check out her Gorgeous Mama programs, designed especially for moms in any stage of their motherhood journey, to create a strong, healthy body, and a joyful, balanced lifestyle!

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