Part 1 of this blog post was all about my reasoning behind implementing a flexible feeding schedule for toddlers and how it’s good for them to be able to understand the difference between hunger and fullness cues. This blog post is going to discuss the details of HOW to implement a feeding schedule in a way that’s best for you and your toddler. Let’s begin!
When we talk about implementing feeding schedules, parents tell me the hardest part is dealing with an unhappy, whining (maybe screaming) toddler who DOES NOT like waiting to eat at set times. They asked for it, and they want it NOW. The constant battle is what makes parents give in and offer the snack on demand – to avoid the exhaustion and the difficult behaviour. Fair enough! Under certain circumstances, this is totally understandable and we just need the break! But the issue with making this a regular occurrence can easily become a problem in overall feeding (read all about the reasons how and why in part 1 of this post).
So here are my solutions:
1. First off – create a general feeding schedule.
Start with basing it off of their wake times, and maybe even the time you might have to leave the house in the morning. Sometimes you’ll have to make sure it coincides with daycare schedules. I like to offer food within the first half hour (or hour max) after waking up. If you don’t – you can bet that your toddler will be coming to you first asking for milk or food. Get ahead of it. Remember – you choose when meals and snacks will be offered. So for example, if your toddler wakes up at 7 am, breakfast can be served at 7:30 (they wake, get dressed, brush teeth, sit down for breakfast). From there, you can set the first snack time 2-2 ½ hours after breakfast is finished (not begun). Lunch will be scheduled another 2-2 ½ hours after that. Do the same for an afternoon snack, and dinner. So a sample feeding schedule for a toddler waking at 7 am could look like this:
7:30 am – breakfast
10:00 am – morning snack
12:30 pm – lunch
3:00 pm – afternoon snack
5:30 pm – dinner
Use this as a starting point and tweak this schedule based on your own child’s needs and your personal schedule. Maybe your daycare offers a morning snack at 10:30 am and your toddler is too hungry by then… see if you can delay breakfast by another half hour. Sometimes dinner can’t be had until 3-3 ½ hours after last snack – see if you can shift your afternoon snack to a little later (or maybe all meals can be pushed ahead by 15-30 min.). In certain situations, maybe two scheduled afternoon snacks are required if dinner is very late. That’s ok! Just keep things spaced apart enough that your toddler can come into a meal or snack truly hungry, but not hangry. Maybe this means a snack is an hour and 45 minutes after the last one and in between dinner – do what works for you – remember to base this off logic, off their true hunger cues and offer more than one in-between meal snack only if actually needed because there’s no way of balancing the schedule better. Don’t make it for emotional reasons or because your toddler demands a snack.
Bedtime snacks can be incorporated as it makes sense. Meaning, if your toddler has had enough time to empty their belly before bed (again, 2-3 hours between supper and bedtime), then it makes sense to offer them a bedtime snack. The key is to make this decision come from YOU and to keep things consistent. So although there will always be exceptions, do your best to keep your decision to offer or not offer a bedtime snack consistent…which means schedules in general should remain fairly consistent. Not rigid…but consistent. So don’t focus on the fact that you set snack time at 10:30 am but it’s 10:28 so you can’t offer it right away. Within 15 minutes
(or sometimes 30 minutes based off your toddler’s cues) before or after you’re originally set feeding times is totally fine. Remember, the point of this versus getting caught up in minute details.
2. Explain to your toddler what is happening (and be consistent!)
Even if you think your toddler is too young to understand, you’d be surprised with how much they can pick up. And what they can’t pick up through words, they will most definitely pick up through your actions. You can explain to your toddler that from now on, the kitchen will be open at certain points throughout the day, and it will be closed at other times. The kitchen will open at snack times and meal times, and in between, just like a restaurant, it will be closed. No food will be offered so we can do other things at that time. You may need to explain this multiple times, especially as they are still learning the new way and testing the boundaries. Because trust me…this WILL happen! It’s normal, expected and shows normal toddler development. The key is always staying consistent in your response! And I mean it – once you give in once – it will be much harder to get back on track the second time around. Just like building up trust in any relationship, actions speak loud and we want our toddler to trust that we’ve got this feeding schedule down to a T! We will always be ready to have a snack or a meal for them throughout the day at set times, without them needing to ask about it. We’ve got their back!
When it comes to the words you use – keep it simple and concise. When they ask for a snack outside of snack time just say “The kitchen is closed now”. When meal time or snack time is over, tell your child that the kitchen is closed and won’t be open again until ____ o’clock. Remind your child of this before they make their final decision to stop eating so that they can decide for themselves if they can last until the next scheduled time. This way, you are teaching your child to decide if and when they are full at mealtime and to tune into their hunger and fullness cues. It will also eliminate the temptation for your child to forgo a meal simply because he/she would rather have a tastier snack option upon demand an hour later. This WILL take practice. But it won’t take more than a few days when done consistently and with conviction.
Sometimes toddlers can’t understand the concept of time and how far away “1 hour” is or what “2 o’clock” means. So you can help them by relating it to the sequence of activities they will be experiencing throughout the day. For example, if they ask for a snack outside of an appropriate snack time, you can say “The kitchen is closed now. It will be open again after reading time. Let’s pull out our book now”. They can better understand this way that, “ok – we are going to read first and THEN we will have snack”. It’s not time to eat now.” They learn this way that there is a time for everything! Which brings me to my next point…
3. Keep a general routine to keep predictability high and tantrums at bay
When talking about managing toddler ANYTHING – I like to look at those with most experience – daycare centres! Don’t you ever wonder how they do it? You know.. tons of kids all riled up with energy, yet they all participate in activities, take their nap, eat their food and greet you with a smile upon days end? They don’t have toddlers asking for a snack left, right and center…no tantrums to eat or claims they are starving between meals…in fact..they don’t even think about snacks until it’s actually snack time. HOW DO THEY DO IT?? ??⠀
The key is in the routine schedule they implement. In fact this routine…this predictability in when food will be offered (and when everything else will take place) is precisely the thing that will make your toddler LESS prone to tantrums. It’s actually seen in all facets of toddler behaviour! You see, there is safety in the repetitiveness of having consistent times for snacks, art, play, naps and lunch. Toddler THRIVE off this. The more they can predict their day, the easier their transitions from one activity to another, and the less likely they are to jump in and ask for things that don’t coincide with the general schedule. So if you feel like your toddler has a hard time with limits, with grazing all day or with having no appetite at meal times, with unpleasant meltdowns around transitioning to the table etc… try your take on implementing a routine schedule like they do! Take a look at your schedule and see if you can create a little more consistency to your routine. It doesn’t always have to be perfect, and it shouldn’t always be the exact same or else you’ll go crazy, but by keeping at least the big things like feeding and nap times around the same time each day, with maybe some type of outing and some type of indoor activity occurring in between around the same time most days, toddlers can begin to predict their day a lot easier. You don’t have to time things down to the minute or make sure every day is the same – that’s missing the point. It’s just to keep some general expectations like “oh, after my afternoon nap, I eat a snack, and then I usually have some free play”, or “I know that mommy after we come back from our walk we have lunch”.
4. Make things visual to help your toddler out
Because toddlers are visual creatures, sometimes visually seeing an actual reminder of the things we talked about in this post works wonders! For example, actually seeing a “kitchen is closed” sign makes the meaning so much more obvious to them. That’s why I’ve created this free downloadable sign to hang on your fridge or anywhere visible in your kitchen that you can point to it to reinforce your message. It will also help prevent the unnecessary asking for snacks when they see the sign as they know (if you are firm and consistent) that any time that sign is up, it’s just not snack time. You can just take down the sign when it is snack time so they can relate that to the idea that now the kitchen is open and snacks will be made available.
Again, because toddlers are visual creatures, capturing your schedule or routine activities in pictures works wonders. That’s why I’ve created this free downloadable and customizable routine clock for you to visually represent to your toddler what’s coming up when throughout the day, including a rough idea where meals and snacks will fit it, so you can help your toddler understand the sequence of events. Now, when they ask for a snack outside of set feeding times you can say “Sure! Snack time is after reading. Let’s pull out our book now” – and point to the clock showing the order of events.The download includes many icons that you can switch up day to day based on the changing activities you will be experiencing that day! It doesn’t have to include everything and the point is not to be super detailed (like your own personal to-do list or schedule – it’s for your toddler to see the general pattern and times. You can use this in combination with my kitchen is closed sign and voila – it all makes sense to them!
READY TO LEARN MORE? Check out my Feeding Toddlers online course that has helped hundreds of parents raise happy, healthy little eaters confidently!