Offering regular opportunities to eat fits the concept of dividing the responsibilities of eating, which aims to encourage children to self-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. Structured meal and snack times are helpful in developing good eating habits, as it is fine for children to wait a little while for the next scheduled meal or snack, even if they are hungry. Generally, children should not be offered alternative foods or an extra milk drink or early snack on the basis that they did not eat much at a scheduled meal or snack time.

Providing flexible snack times allows children to finish an activity, or snacks can be available over a short period of time if that suits the daily plan for the setting. Allowing children to become too hungry often leads to them becoming irritable. On the other hand, constant or unstructured ‘grazing’ interferes with children learning to recognise when they are hungry and eating in response to hunger.

Snacks and meals are both equally important to children’s nutrition. Young children have limited capacity at each mealtime, and need regular opportunities to eat in order to maintain energy levels and consume enough nutrients to stay healthy. Three meals and two snacks are ideal for young children, though children who may not have an evening meal until very late may need a small snack late in the afternoon. When this happens, a smaller amount may be eaten at the meal.

Snacks should make a contribution of nutrients in proportion to their energy value. Snacks that provide energy (kilojoules) without their fair share of nutrients should not be offered on a regular basis. These are ‘sometimes foods’.

Most foods offered at meals can also be offered as snacks. The most commonly provided suitable snacks include fruit, vegetables, bread or cereals, and milk-based drinks. Snacks do not have to be large – one or two biscuits with cheese, a small piece of fruit, steamed vegetable sticks with dip, or a small glass of fruit smoothie offered with water are ideal.