Is Your Toddler Always Hungry? Get the 411 on Snacking

2-3 Years

Let’s be honest, if you’re the parent of a toddler, some days you feel like all you do is feed your kid. From breakfast to bedtime, cries of “I’m hungry” echo across hallways, aisles, sidewalks and parks. If you’re not prepared, hungry tummies can turn into tantrums fast. But picking healthy snacks for toddlers can be tough, since baby food aisles are filled with more snack options than ever, and many unhealthy ones. Here’s what you need to know.

How many snacks does my toddler need?

Toddlers seem like they are always ready to eat, and in part, that’s true. On average, your little tyke should enjoy a healthy snack or meal every three to four hours. That means it’s OK to give him three meals and two to three healthy snacks each day. By providing meals and snacks at about the same times each day, you can keep him and his tummy happy.

Sometimes an unplanned errand or spur-of-the-moment outing will interrupt your toddler feeding schedule. When you’re out and about and your little one’s tummy starts to rumble at a time you would normally offer him a snack, go ahead and give him something. If it’s not a time he normally eats and you think he might just be bored, engage his attention with a toy or book or by having him be your little helper. For example, at the grocery store, he can hold things for you in the cart or help you choose between two veggies or cereals (that you approve of).

Hungry, bored or just trolling for a treat?

When you’re trying to figure out if your child is hungry, bored or just wanting something sweet, like fruit snacks or another sugary snack, ask yourself how long it’s been since she last ate. If it’s been more than three hours, or if she ate very little the last time you offered her a meal or snack, she may be hungry. Offer her a healthy snack, like a banana, an apple or a few whole-wheat crackers. If she rejects that but continues to ask for fruit snacks, she might just want a treat.

If you think she might just be looking for something to do, cure her boredom with a toy or favorite book—or take her outside for a walk. If it’s too hot or rainy, break out a game and enjoy some bonding time together.

Are snacks OK right before dinner?

Many toddlers are hungry after a full day at school. If his afternoon snack is at 2:30 p.m., for example, it might not be enough to hold him over to a 6 p.m. or later dinner. It’s OK to give him a second snack between lunch or dinner as long as it’s light; you want him to come to the dinner table hungry. Good healthy, light snack options for toddlers include:

  • Handful of dry cereal
  • Whole-grain crackers
  • Unsweetened applesauce
Avoid large portions or filling snacks like cheese or peanut butter, so he’ll stay hungry for a healthy and satisfying dinner. If he focuses on food from the second you get home until dinner, distract him with coloring books and crayons, or fun jobs like setting the table or helping in the kitchen.

Is it OK to graze all day?

Letting kids snack all day (i.e., graze) keeps them from ever being hungry enough to eat a meal full of a variety of healthy foods. Constant grazing also starts a cycle that can be hard to break as your child gets older. As you may already know, his eating habits (good or bad) will be hardwired by the time he’s 3; so, the more you can do to establish healthy habits before his third birthday, the better.

Instead of grazing, think of hunger and fullness as a scale, not an either/or option. Your child doesn’t need to be always hungry or full; it’s OK for him to feel a little bit hungry at mealtime. That will drive him to eat a full, nutritious and satisfying meal and establish healthy eating habits for the rest of his life.