Fussy eating advice

Should I give my child a snack if they eat nothing – or almost nothing – of their evening meal?

It can feel like you’re stuck between a rock and a hard place, can’t it? You don’t want to send you child to bed hungry, but if you make them something else like toast or cereal, it feels like you’re encouraging them to be fussy at mealtime.

So what’s the answer?

Firstly, you absolutely shouldn’t send them to bed on an empty stomach. Apart from the fact they may sleep badly, it creates feelings of punishment and unpleasantness around food and mealtimes. The aim should never be to hunger your child into eating or to teach them a lesson (“It’s your fault if you’re hungry – you should have eaten your dinner.”). So, yes, it’s totally fine to give your child a snack before bedtime if you think they need it – but it needs to be done in a particular way so that it doesn’t exacerbate their fussiness and do more harm than good! Here’s how:

1. Make sure the snack is given at least 45 minutes AFTER dinner time is over.

Don’t let it be something that just fizzles in as dinner fizzles out (or fails!). It is important that your child does not perceive the snack as an alternative to eating dinner or as compensation for not eating dinner. It needs to be seen as a separate thing in its own right! No blurry lines. So be sure to clearly call and label it a ‘snack’ too.

2. You – not your child! – must be in charge of WHAT and WHEN the snack is.

A crucial part of undoing fussy eating in your child is for you to take back control of the menu – and this includes snacks before bedtime. (Remember, the golden rule: You’re in charge of what food is served. They’re in charge of whether they eat it.) So never give your child the snack of their choice when they demand it! Instead…

3. Choose a time to serve the snack when it suits you and your bedtime routine.

If your child asks for the snack earlier or complains they’re hungry, just calmly and clearly say “It’ll be snack time a bit later/soon/after your bath” or whenever you have decided to give it. And stick to that.

4. Limit the variety of foods you serve as a snack.

You shouldn’t give your child their favourite snack every time, but neither should there be a big range. We want it to be a simple and unexciting event! Choose two or three non-sugary things that your child reliably eats and rotate between them equally. For example, a bowl of cereal or toast or a banana. (Bananas are especially great because they aid sleep.) Your child may initially complain “But I want X” but just say calmly and clearly “That’s what the snack is tonight” and they will accept the situation after a day or two (three days at the most!) if you are utterly consistent.

As your child’s fussiness subsides and they eat more at dinner time, you can gradually decrease the size of the snack  until  – whey hey! – you can phase it out altogether.

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