Managing Your Toddler's Snacking

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.

mom grabbing snack from bag

Toddlers seem like they are always ready to eat, and in part, that’s true. On average, your child should enjoy a healthy snack or meal every 2 to 3 hours. That means it’s OK to give him 3 meals and 2 to 3 healthy snacks each day. By providing meals and snacks at about the same times each day, you can keep your child and their 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 them a snack, go ahead and give them something. If it’s not a time they normally eat and you think they might just be bored, try to engage their attention with a toy or book or by having them be your little helper. For example, at the grocery store, your child can hold things for you in the cart or help you choose between 2 veggies or cereals (that you approve of).

toddler eating a banana

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 they last ate. If it’s been more than 3 hours, or if they ate very little the last time you offered them a meal or snack, they may be hungry. Offer your child a healthy snack, like a banana, an apple or a few whole-wheat crackers. If they reject that but continue to ask for fruit snacks, they might just want a treat.

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

toddler reaching for spoon of applesauce

Many toddlers are hungry after a full day at school. If your child's afternoon snack is at 2:30 p.m., for example, it might not be enough to hold them over to a 6 p.m. or later dinner. It’s OK to give them a second snack between lunch or dinner as long as it’s light; you want them 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 they'll stay hungry for a healthy and satisfying dinner. If your child focuses on food from the second you get home until dinner, distract them with coloring books and crayons, or fun jobs like setting the table or helping in the kitchen.

toddler eating toasted oats

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, their eating habits (good or bad) will be hardwired by the time they're 3; so, the more you can do to establish healthy habits before their 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 them to feel a little bit hungry at mealtime. That will drive them to eat a full, nutritious and satisfying meal and establish healthy eating habits for the rest of their life.