Establishing good mealtime routines in childhood helps with maintaining a regular meal pattern throughout adolescence and adulthood. A regular meal pattern forms the foundation for a healthy, balanced diet. Children have small stomachs, and their energy and nutrient requirements are best met through small and frequent nutritious meals and snacks.
Providing meals at regular, predictable intervalsOffering regular opportunities to eat fits the concept of dividing the responsibilities of eating, which aims to encourage children to learn to regulate their own appetites. A child can be confident about eating or declining food when they know that food will be offered again at a predictable time. Also, adults are often more comfortable with children declining food or eating less when they know there are not long periods between opportunities to eat. Snacks are just as important as meals to children’s nutrition. Young children can only eat so much at mealtimes, and they need regular opportunities to eat in order to maintain energy levels and achieve a healthy intake of nutrients over the day. Three meals and two snacks a day are ideal for young children. Children who will not have an evening meal until very late may need a small snack late in the afternoon.
Snacks should contribute nutrients in proportion to their energy value. Some snacks, or ‘sometimes foods’, provide energy (kilojoules) without contributing enough nutrients. These are not good snacks for children and should not be offered.
Most foods offered as meals can also be offered as snacks. The most commonly provided suitable snacks include bread, cereals, fruit, vegetables and milk-based drinks. Snacks do not have to be large – one or two crackers with cheese, a small piece of fruit, steamed vegetable sticks with dip or a small glass of fruit smoothie are examples of good snacks. Make sure water is also available at all times.
There can be some flexibility when it comes to snack times, to allow children to finish an activity. Alternatively, snacks can be available over a period of time if it suits the setting. Children who become too hungry will often become irritable as a result. However, constant grazing gets in the way of children learning to recognise hunger and knowing to eat in response to hunger.