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Is your child asking for food just before dinner?

When dinner isn’t ready yet but your child is hungry and starts moaning and misbehaving, what do you do? It can feel like you’re choosing between your sanity and your child eating their meal some nights! 

Detective work

Sometimes as parents we need to get our detective hats on to work out what to do and this is one of those moments. There are a few things you can try, and it’s worth trying them all at different times to see what works. You may also find that a combination of different strategies works on different days as there will be different reasons for the requests. 

First of all, we do need to decide whether your child is asking for food because they’re hungry or if they’re bored. 

If it’s boredom

In this situation we really just need to think about the language that we use. You say yes to food but in a roundabout way. 

For example: 

“Can I have some food please?”

“Yes, you can have some food in about 15 minutes when dinner is ready. It won’t be long.”

“Can I have some crisps?”

“You can have crisps, but not right now. Why don’t we put some in your packed lunch tomorrow?”

I’m not saying your child is just going to say “Oh ok” and slope off (come on this is parenting!) BUT responding like this is much more likely to reduce big emotions than an outright no. 

Strategy 1: Think about your mid afternoon snack 

Do you have a child that is always hungry before dinner? They are asking for food before it is ready most nights. If so, you need to make sure that they have a mid afternoon snack that is doing it’s job properly. 

First, make sure that snack is big enough. Parents often worry about giving a snack that’s too big which is going to ruin dinner. But they often pull back too much and are left with a hungry child. So make sure the snack is big enough.

Second, make sure that the snack is balanced with different food groups. Aim to have a couple of food groups, even three, in your snack. 

Snacks should go like this…

Some kind of carbohydrates e.g bread, crackers, crumpet. Then some protein e.g cheese, ham, yoghurt, hummus. And then ideally, some kind of vegetable or fruit. 

So ideal snacks would be something like…

  • Half a peanut butter sandwich
  • Cheese, crackers and cucumber slices
  • A yoghurt with a banana

Always think about your snack as a mini meal. You tend to think about meals having different types of foods as we know that fills us up better and will be more satisfying. You probably wouldn’t just serve a big bowl of apples or 3 cereal bars. The same principle works with snacks.

Strategy 2: Serve a starter 

If your child is really hassling you for food, if their snack hasn’t worked and they are really hungry, think about serving them a starter. Get them at the dinner table before dinner is ready (you probably won’t do this everyday but it’s a handy tool on days when you know they’re really hungry and they aren’t going to give up).  

You can either give them a bit of the dinner, like a component of it that might already be ready, or just some kind of starter. It might be some vegetable sticks and a dip (dip can just be ketchup if that’s what your child likes)! Just a small amount of something to keep them going, but make them feel it’s part of the meal. 

For children that are often open to trying something new, putting something on a starter plate can work really well to get them to try something. If they’re that little bit more hungry, they may be a bit more motivated to try something and it’s often without pressure because you’re not really telling them to eat it because you’re busy making dinner. 

For children that are more fussy and anxious about new foods, put separate plates, with some new and some accepted foods and allow them to explore themselves. 

Strategy 3: Bring dinner slightly earlier 

The third thing that I would recommend is (but only if possible and there’s room to maneuver), is to bring your meal time forward a bit. 

It may take a little bit more advanced prep, or changing of timings but if you aim to eat 15 minutes earlier to start with you can get into the mindset of just starting a little bit earlier. Or can you do any prep at any other time? 

And like I always say (if you’ve watched much of my stuff or ever worked with me), you don’t have to be slaving away for hours every night making dinner. Very quick, very easy dinners like scrambled egg and beans on toast, a quick jacket potato in the microwave or a bowl of soup and a sandwich are nutritionally good options. 

They are also nice and quick so you can bring dinner forward a little bit further. 

Strategy 4: Set boundaries 

Lastly, something that is generally really hard to do, but will always show benefits if you aren’t currently doing it is setting firm boundaries around food. 

What I mean by that is you need to decide for yourself what you are happy to do and for your child to do and then you need to stick to it. Firmly!

Ideally, we don’t want children having snacks less than around 2 hours before dinner as it will impact their appetite. However, you may know that your child can have something small to eat before dinner and it won’t impact their appetite. If so, then your boundary might be: if they ask and they’re really moody and it’s causing a big issue, let them have some food.

More often than not, the boundary may work better if you say to yourself within a certain timeframe before dinner you won’t give your child anything to eat. 

Whatever your boundary is, as I said above, it really must be firm and you’ll need to stick to it as much as you can. 

If you have decided your timeframe is 1 hour before dinner you always know what your response is going to be. If they as 45 minutes before dinner your response should be: 

“Not right now, dinner is nearly ready.”

Or alternatively, and less likely to cause a big reaction is the yes/no response that you may have heard me talk about before. 

“Yes, you can have some food, in 15 minutes when dinner is ready. We’re not having a snack before, but don’t worry it won’t be long.”  

The most important thing here is if you sometimes say yes and give them something, your child is always going to ask. If they know that the more they ask, the more chance there is of getting it, you’re much more likely to have that whinging and moaning constantly when they want something. 

If it’s a hard no and you always stick to your guns and they know that to be true, they are much much less likely to carry on asking you. Parenting, as always, is about repetition! 

Over time, things become much easier as they know you’re not going to say yes!

Have you found this helpful? If so, please let me know at hello@theearlyyearsdietitian.co.uk and if you aren’t already follow me over on social media https://www.instagram.com/theearlyyearsdietitian. If you have a topic you’d like me to write about or if you need input from a dietitian on a particular topic such as growth, food allergies, constipation, fussy eating, vegetarian or vegan diets, reflux or anything else feeding related please get in contact!

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