Inside this article: If you’ve ever wanted to pull your hair out after hearing “Mom, can I have a snack” five minutes after you cleaned up the kitchen from dinner, this article is for you!
I was recently teaching a local class series to parents with kids ages 0-5 and the question of bedtime snacks came up in nearly every session. So, I decided it was the perfect time to dive into this topic further.
I’m going to review when to serve and when to skip a bedtime snack and what the best bedtime snacks for toddlers & kids are.
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Should I offer my kids a bedtime snack?
Bedtime can be one of the hardest parts of the day for young kids. They’re tired, you’re tired and no one has a whole lot of energy. Okay…that is until your kids get their second wind! Despite their being tired, they always seem to find a way to push the bedtime boundary.
Unfortunately, there is not one answer to this question. Whether or not you offer a bedtime sack depends on a few different things.
- What time do you serve dinner and what time do they go to bed
- Is your child typically hungry before bed (or are they using it as a stalling tactic.)
It is important to remember that there is nothing wrong with offering a bedtime snack to your kids.
The media/public has sort of demonized eating at night as if it is going to do something negative to the body. That is simply not true.
Your body is able to process and digest food no matter when you eat it.
Additionally, if your child is truly hungry, forcing them to go to bed on an empty stomach can create long-lasting negative feelings/memories. So, it is important to assess your individual home routine (and your kids) to decide.
If there are at least 1.5-2 hours between dinner ending and bedtime, and your kids often tell you they are hungry before bed, I think it’s a great idea to offer a bedtime snack.
When offering bedtime snacks for toddlers & kids, make it a routine and at a fairly consistent time each day.
Meal and snack schedules for toddlers & kids
The number one thing I recommend parents do is to create a flexible meal and snack routine in their homes. What this means is that you have a set window of time each day when your kids eat their meals and their snacks.
For most kids, 3 meals and 2-3 snacks each day work great.
This has to be flexible because kids are not robots, they don’t wake up at exactly the same time each day. That is why I like to use meal and snack windows.
Feeding schedule for toddlers
Toddlers have little bellies, around the size of their fists. So, they don’t eat a lot at each sitting. This means they get hungry faster. Toddlers typically need to eat every 2-3 hours.
That being said, in the evenings there may or may not be 2-3 hours between dinner and bedtime. So, it is ok to provide a bedtime snack even if the gap isn’t that large.
Be sure to start your toddler’s day with a filling breakfast, since they tend to eat the most volume in the morning. As the day winds down, they tend to eat smaller and smaller quantities. So, bedtime snacks for toddlers should be small.
Try to wait at least 1 hour (ideally 1.5-2 hours) after ending dinner before offering a snack.
In our home, we typically eat dinner between 4:30 and 5 pm, and my toddler and 5-year-old go to bed between 7-7:30 pm. I’ve set a fairly consistent time for a bedtime snack around 6:30 pm.
This works great because we are able to move from dinner to bathtime, get ready for bed, and then have playtime until 6:30 pm. They have a quick snack and then move into the bedtime routine of brushing their teeth, reading books, singing and saying prayers, and then lights out. Creating as much consistency as possible is the key to a successful nighttime routine with little kids.
Feeding schedule for older kids
As your kids move beyond the toddler stage into preschool and then elementary school, it’s likely their bedtime will start to push back a bit. Preschoolers and elementary-aged kids typically need to eat every 3-4 hours.
However, just as with toddlers, there may not be a 3-4 hour gap between dinnertime ending and bedtime, so offering a bedtime snack between the two is still ok.
Even as kids get older, I recommend waiting at least 1 hour (ideally 1.5-2 hours) between dinner and the bedtime snack.
The one-hour rule
The primary reason you want to wait at least 1 hour between dinner & bedtime snack, is that you don’t want your kids to start intentionally not eating dinner just to get the bedtime snack. If the snack is too close to dinner, it gets easy for them to make that choice. One hour is a good minimum, 1.5 hours+ is ideal.
If the gap is a bit larger, they are more likely to eat something at dinnertime. Most kids prefer “snacks” even if you are sticking to the boring snack rule. The 1-1.5 hours minimum gap really helps to separate the meal and the snacktime, thus encouraging more dinnertime intake.
When to serve a bedtime snack
Regardless of your child’s age, try to pick a consistent time about 30-45 min before their bedtime to offer the snack. That way, they are not getting into bed with brushed teeth and saying “Mom, I’m hungry.” It will make life easier for everyone 🙂
Healthy bedtime snacks for toddlers & kids
The best bedtime snack for toddlers & kids includes fat or protein and a whole grain, fruit, or vegetable. When picking a bedtime snack, I like to stick to things that are filling, but not exciting.
Basically, you want their snack to fill their bellies enough to make them satisfied, but not be exciting enough that they look forward to it or skip dinner for it. A bedtime snack should also be easy for you to make as the parent–who has time for another thing that late in the day?
How to build healthy bedtime snacks
- Include a fat and/or protein
- Fat and protein are digested less quickly than carbohydrates, they also help lessen the blood sugar spike. Including fat or protein helps hold them over longer.
- Hardboiled eggs, cheese, nuts, nut or seed butter, avocado, hummus & milk are great protein/fat sources for bedtime snacks. Finding the right protein sources for your picky eater is especially important.
- Include a whole grain, fruit, or vegetable
- These all have fiber, are filling, and are not super exciting.
- Whole grain crackers, whole grain bread, low sugar cereal, unsweetened oatmeal, apples, banana, berries, baby carrots, mini peppers, or cucumbers are great energy sources so pair them with a fat/protein source.
- Avoid added sugars
- Sweets, candy & desserts are delicious, but serve them with dinner and not at bedtime.
- These spike blood sugar, which can interfere with sleep and they don’t actually help keep kids full, the whole point of a snack.
- Added sugars at bedtime are a surefire way to get them to skip dinner and look forward to snack time.
In my house, I stick to offering just two things for bedtime snacks. These things change by the day and what I have on hand, but two is the max choice I give.
Giving a choice is nice, but too many choices can be overwhelming for kids.
Below you will find 10 different bedtime snack ideas for your kids. But, don’t just ask them “What do you want for a bedtime snack?” Instead, ask “What would you like for bedtime snack tonight option A or option B?” and then tell them what the two choices are.
10 Easy & nutritious bedtime snacks for toddlers & kids
- Plain unsweetened cereal with whole, soy, or pea milk (I love o’s cereal).
- Apple or banana with peanut butter (or seed butter)
- Carrots & hummus
- Hard-boiled egg & whole grain crackers
- Whole grain toast with peanut butter (or seed butter)
- String cheese & crackers or strawberries
- Unsweetened or low-sugar yogurt (ideally probiotic-rich)
- A glass of whole milk or milk alternative such as soy milk, or pea milk
- Unsweetened oatmeal with whole milk, soy milk, or pea milk
- Cheddar cheese & nuts* (served appropriately based on age for choking risk)
Melatonin-rich bedtime snacks for toddlers & kids
Melatonin has been widely studied for its impact on sleep cycles. Some foods contain higher levels of melatonin than others and foods higher in melatonin may help promote better sleep.
When providing your kids with a bedtime snack, including melatonin-rich foods could be a great choice. The following foods have shown higher levels of melatonin concentration. (1)
- Breastmilk (especially nighttime breastmilk of humans and animals)
- Tart cherries
- Pistachios (caution in toddlers, they could be a choking hazard)
There is also some evidence that the consumption of tart cherry juice may naturally increase melatonin production and therefore help promote better and longer sleep. (2) If your child has trouble falling asleep at night, a small dose of tart cherry juice might be worth trying out!
What to do if your child refuses to eat dinner?
Parents often will ask me what they should do if their child refuses to eat their dinner. Should they give a snack sooner? The short answer is no.
Don’t move the snack up just because they didn’t eat dinner. If you do this, they may routinely start declining dinner just so they get a snack that they prefer more. This is the primary reason I recommend waiting at least 1 hour between dinnertime and snack time.
How to get a child to eat when they refuse
If your child is refusing to eat dinner, it’s important to remember that your job is not to make them eat. Your job is to provide the opportunity and environment for them to eat.
Whether or not they eat what you make is up to them. However, there are some key things you can do to help your toddler eat at mealtimes.
10 ways to help your child eat when they refuse
- Schedule: Make sure you are sticking to your (flexible) yet consistent schedule. Sometimes kids refuse dinner because they were grazing on snacks too close to dinnertime, and they’re really just not hungry.
- Family meals: Create 1 meal for the family and try to avoid making them their own separate meals. It is OK if the meal is deconstructed for them.
- Safe foods: Ensure there is SOMETHING on the dinner table you know your child will eat. Even if it is just bread, fruit, or milk. If there is at least 1 thing on the table they eat at least 50% of the time you can feel confident that they won’t walk away hungry. Let them have additional portions of the items they like if they ask.
- Reminders: Remind them when they leave the dinner table that they won’t be eating again until X time (whenever your next designated snack time is). Now is the time to eat if they are hungry.
- Snack spacing: Keep the bedtime snack time at least 1-1.5 hours after dinner. You can keep slightly bigger spaces between other meals and snacks during the day.
- Consistency: As annoying as it is when they ask every 5 seconds, they are not going to wither away between mealtime and snack time. They can wait, so stick with it. Consistency will help them eat more at meals over time.
- Choices: Give them a say in the menu. It’s OK to let your kids make some choices when it comes to meals. Then have the whole family partake in their choice. This doesn’t mean they dictate dinner every single night, but each child can help pick a dinner each week and make side choices at meals.
- Limit distractions: Keep “distractions” to a minimum. When possible, turn the TV off, keep toys off the table, and try to eat with your kids. Engage them in conversation.
- Modeling: Model the behavior you want to see. Kids learn a lot from watching their parents eat.
- Positive environment: Make mealtime enjoyable. Release the pressure to micromanage them, it actually can help improve how much they eat.
Snacking and kids can be sensitive subjects for parents. Remember that it is very normal for kids to prefer snacks, but you still have to set some boundaries around their timing. Keep a consistent but flexible meal and snack schedule in place and adjust the timing between meals and snacks depending on your child’s age.
Try to offer meals and snacks with a good balance of protein/fats and carbohydrate sources which provide energy. Protein and fats help keep kids full longer which can help hold them over between meals.
If there is a big gap between dinnertime and bedtime, bedtime snacks for toddlers and kids are a good idea. Try to wait at least 1-1.5 hours between dinnertime and a bedtime snack. Offering snacks too close to dinner time might encourage them to skip dinner and wait for their bedtime snack.
Make sure bedtime snacks are filling, but not thrilling. Fill their bellies but don’t make them exciting. Avoid added sugars at bedtime snacks. If you plan to offer sweets/dessert, add those to the dinner meal instead.
Need more help with feeding your kids?
If you feel like you have tried to implement all the things you have read online or seen on Instagram and you are still struggling with how your kids eat, I’d love to help!
You can schedule a 1:1 consult with me and we can dive more specifically into the issues you are having. Feel free to contact me if you have questions before scheduling.
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