Healthy Eating Schedule: Toddlers and Preschoolers
Your child may act like they can do everything without your help, but in reality, your little tyke still craves routine and structure. Developing a daily schedule for meals and snacks is a great way to help your child learn healthy eating habits, and having a mealtime schedule makes Mom and Dad’s life easier too!
Why have a schedule?
One of the most important things you will do as a parent is provide healthy meals for your child, and we're not just talking about what you feed them. Establishing a consistent mealtime schedule is just as important in helping your child develop healthy eating habits, such as knowing when their tummy is full and how to enjoy family meals.
In addition to helping your child develop a healthy relationship with food, scheduling meals and snacks gives your child a sense of security because they know they’ll have another chance to eat soon. Knowing when the next snack or meal will be helps take away any pressure for your child to eat when they're not really hungry, and it can also help prevent hunger-related tantrums.
Sample meal and snack time schedule
Your child's eating schedule will depend on what time they usually wake up in the morning, when they take their nap and your family’s daily routine. The goal is to try to keep meals and snacks scheduled around the same time each day, but don’t stress if it’s not exact. For example, your child might eat lunch at noon one day and 12:30 p.m. the next, and that’s OK. This helps your child listen to their body’s cues that their tummy is full, lets them know another snack or meal is coming, and makes sure they're hungry enough (but not too hungry) at the next mealtime. Most young children need 3 meals a day, with healthy snacks in between. Scheduling snacks so they eat every 2 to 3 hours is ideal.
Sample eating schedule:
- Breakfast: 7 a.m.
- Snack: around 9:30 a.m.
- Lunch: noon
- Snack: 3 p.m.
- Dinner: 6 p.m.
Tips for handling in-between appetites
If your child is constantly asking for food between meals and snacks, try these tips:
- Make sure you are offering 4 to 5 food groups at meals and 2 to 3 food groups for snacks. This healthy balance gives your child’s body the energy it needs to last until the next meal or snack.
- Stick with water between meals and snacks. Sipping juice or milk will fill your child's tummy and lead to mealtime battles.
- Try distracting your child with a fun activity—they might just be bored!
If you follow these tips and your child still asks for food between meals, it may be time to adjust their meal schedule.
How to make the most of family meals
Family mealtime is a perfect time to model great manners (and how much you enjoy eating your veggies!), so make time to sit together as a family for at least one meal a day. A few rules of thumb:
- Sit down to eat, preferably all together at a table. Remove distractions like TV and cell phones so your family can focus on eating.
- Water between meals. Milk or water should be served at mealtime, and water is the best thirst quencher in between.
- Trust your child to eat what they need. A growing child's hunger can change from meal to meal, so it’s OK if they don’t eat much—they won’t starve if they miss one meal. Simply (and calmly) ask, “Did you get enough to eat? We won’t be eating again until lunch,” then follow their lead.