One of the most common things I hear about toddlers starting daycare or kids starting preschool is that the second they get picked up to go home, they’re crying and whining for a snack. They’re all out of sorts, they’re a little bit hangry, and these hungry kids want something to eat pronto!
This, leaves you wondering… why are they so hungry (and is it ok to feed them a simple after-school snack?).
The good news here is that this behavior is perfectly normal. There are a number of reasons why your little one is coming home from daycare or preschool ravenous.
Also – in most cases – yes, it’s ok to offer after-school snacks to tame the meltdown and not have it ruin dinner!
In this blog post, we’re going to be covering all of the reasons why toddlers and preschoolers may be “starving” when they get home, what types of foods you can offer them, and when you should offer them to make sure that dinner isn’t ruined. We’ll answer that common question of whether you should serve an after-school or daycare snack or early dinner too!
Plus, you’re going to get my favorite veggie hack that I swear works on almost every kid I’ve ever worked with!
And if you’re looking for healthy, easy, dietitian-approved snack ideas for your toddler or preschooler, look no further than our Ultimate Snack Guide for Toddlers. This is a three-part guide that covers over 150 ideas that you can mix and match and pull easily from your pantry, refrigerator, or freezer.
Plus, it has a list of dietitian-approved, store-bought snacks (for days when you just want something super convenient to grab and go), and it includes a list of our favorite recipes that you can make ahead and store in the fridge or freezer to pull out as needed for quick and healthy options anytime.
Table of Contents
Why does my kid come home “starving” from daycare or preschool?
One of the first things that might come to mind as a parent as to why your little one might be hungry after daycare and looking for food right after coming home from daycare (or as soon as they get buckled into their car seat), is that they didn’t get enough food or that they didn’t like what was offered to them.
However, as a Registered Dietitian with over 12 years of experience and as a Mom of two kids for 15 years…I can tell you this is most likely not the reason! In fact, most kids eat better at daycare than at home (but that’s a post for another day).
Here are the top 3 reasons why kids are starving and need immediate after-school snacks.
#1: They’re tired from a long day of learning, playing, and interacting
Their energy levels are depleted, they’ve been social all day with other kids, running around the playground, and are ready to decompress. Outside of time and attention from you, they might need a little pick-me-up via food to re-energize them and help carry them through the rest of the evening.
#2: The snacks that were offered were unbalanced
Hello simple carbs and simple snacks like cucumber and strawberries, or orange slices and crackers. Although delicious and probably popular with the kiddos, these don’t allow kids to stay full, causing blood sugar crashes and mood swings to go along with it.
Even if each individual item is healthy, the simple concoction of carbs with little fiber, fat, or protein just doesn’t cut it as a satiating and well-balanced snack.
#3: The timing of their last snack was too far away from their pick-up time or dinner
Depending on when pick up is it could coincide with when they’re naturally just hungry and needing food again (even if they ate a great lunch that was healthy and had a perfectly balanced afternoon snack). Of course, dinner isn’t easy to just have ready to go as soon as you get home, so there’s often even more of a delay until it’s ready.
Resulting in a hungry toddler or preschooler getting even more desperate and cranky for food (cue the complete meltdown).
This is where after-school snacks, or maybe even something to pack in the car as you pick them up from a long day at daycare/preschool, can come in handy and really help tame your toddler’s hangry feelings while you get dinner ready.
What type of after-school snack can I offer (that won’t ruin dinner)?
Unless dinner time is an hour away (or less) from when you’ve picked up your kiddo from daycare or preschool, it’s definitely okay to offer a little after-school snack to hold them over. You will want to be careful as to the quantity and types of foods being offered.
Let’s go through some options below.
If dinner is 2+ hours away...
Generally speaking, if dinner time is 2+ hours away, I suggest offering something substantial that includes three of the major macronutrients and follows my FFP rule. This rule means that in these cases, the after-school snacks offered contain a really good source of fat, fiber, and protein (or at least two of the three).
Read more about the FFP rule, here.
You can let your kids eat until they are full (yes – this means they can have seconds or even thirds!). Think of it as more of a mini-meal (or sometimes even, a meal).
Generally, kids under age 4 or 5 truly need an opportunity to eat until they’re full every 2 ½ – 3 hours – so – if dinner is 2 ½-3 hours away, a fully balanced snack or mini-meal is called for!
You don’t have to go all out with cooking a full gourmet recipe by the way – quick ideas for foods that take 2 – 15 minutes to put together are found in our toddler snack guide and that is all you need.
If dinner is 1+ hours away...
If dinner time is 1 or 1 ½ hours away from pick-up time (and their last daycare snack was 1+ hours prior), you might want to give them a smaller portion that is still well-balanced to keep blood sugars running smoothly.
You don’t want to allow unlimited portions, as the purpose of this smaller, portioned after-school or daycare snack is to just tide them over – dinner time is what filling up is for.
Although it’s not often considered a snack, a glass of milk is one of my favorite recommendations that fulfills this purpose! Full of healthy fat and protein, an 8 oz cup = 150 kcal, 8 g of fat and 8 g of protein!
There’s no need to put out a full-on, sit-down, after-school snack. Plus, it keeps it feeling less like a “meal”, which means you can keep your toddler or preschooler reminded that meals and snacks are on more of a schedule vs. bits of foods being offered every 1 ½ hours (aka grazing).
If dinner is less than 1 hour away...
My favorite snack hack that I’ve used for years and years with my kids and over 100 of my personal clients is to make use of the inconspicuous veggie tray platter!
It works best when dinner is about 30-60 minutes away (and perhaps their last snack was 2+ hours prior). This is a time when they want to eat but dinner isn’t ready yet. You don’t want them to fill up on after-school snacks per se – and yet – their open appetite makes it so that they’re willing to try anything. Or at least….almost anything.
And what better time to let vegetables show up that might otherwise be turned down at dinner when there are competing foods around?
Here’s how it works.
Inconspicuously put a platter of veggies and dip on the dinner table or coffee table. It does not have to be as fancy and full as this fancy image shown above!
Don’t say a word. Don’t say “Ooooh look at what I have for you!” or “Look at how good these veggies look!” or anything.
Not making a big deal out of it is important!
They may notice it right away, or it may take them a while before they realize it’s there. Maybe they notice it, and they pay no interest to it (cause it is just a vegetable tray after all). BUT….watch out of the corner of your eye. Eventually, most times kids (even those who “hate” veggies), will slowly start to creep up on it. They’ll look at it, pick one up, take a bite, resume doing what they were doing before…and then come back to it. Next thing you know, they’ve eaten more veggies than they’ve ever eaten before!
Again…refrain from making a big deal! Once they see you’re happy they “finally” ate a veggie…they’ll usually backtrack cause…you know…they’ll know you care so much and the power struggle begins again.
The good thing is that veggies and dip won’t necessarily fill them up too much before an actual meal is served, and they get all those nutrients in before dinner has actually begun. It takes a lot of pressure off you worrying about them eating veggies during dinner!
If you’re offering this in the car on the way home, be very careful of increased choking risk with raw veggies. Try cooking them first and packing them in a container for safer snacking.
Ideally – all meals and snacks are eaten sitting in an upright position, at a table, or on the floor – but – parenting isn’t always that simple, now is it?
Can I replace dinner with after-school snacks?
Generally, the answer to this is going to be no. Dinner is a bigger meal, with usually much more variety, and is an opportunity for the whole family to get together around the table and bond, model healthy eating, socialize, wind down, and more (read about the benefits of family dinners here).
That being said, if you find that you can’t seem to get away with offering only a small portion, and your little one really needs a big, filling snack (that inevitably ruins any appetite for the dinner you made), then consider moving dinner to later in the day if your schedule allows.
Alternatively, you can try to aim for an early dinner and offer that in place of an after-school snack. That way, your child has the motivation to eat, and perhaps a bedtime snack can be added in 2-3 hours later, if they’re still up.
Read more about whether a bedtime snack is necessary when choosing between after school snack or early dinner, here.
Best after-school snacks for toddlers
We love the concept of simple whole foods, pieced together to create a balanced option for your toddler or preschooler (vs. always relying on packaged foods marketed as snacks). Although it sounds like it would be more work, pulling 2-3 times from your fridge, pantry, or freezer and making different snack platters is actually really easy with practice.
We also recommend putting snacks (even if it is packaged) on a plate and having your child sit down at the table to eat. This is important from a chewing and safety point of view, but also for implementing a policy that “food is eaten at the table”, which eliminates eating on the go, eating when bored, eating while distracted, and of course – it provides more of a family eating environment when possible.
Here are some of our favorite combos of whole foods that work as simple, easy, and healthy options for toddlers or preschoolers:
- Banana and milk
- Toast and peanut butter with hemp hearts
- Scrambled egg (takes 2-3 min to make!) with fruit
- Cheese, cucumbers, and crackers
- Mashed avocado and cucumbers or peppers
- Leftover meat and berries (add a dip like hummus if you have it!)
- Yogurt with ground nuts (could also add chia seeds!)
- Hardboiled egg and applesauce
Notice that we don’t have carb-only snacks here! Don’t fall for the temptation to pair fruit with oatmeal, or veggies with crackers only. It’s not that they’re not healthy…it’s just that even if they’re high in fiber, they’re still missing a substantial amount of protein and/or fat. You’ve gotta add some cheese to that veggie and cracker combo (for example)!
Remember the FFP rule as much as you can!
Looking for more ideas for fun, tasty, mix-and-match snacks you can pull together in a jiffy? What about dietitian-approved pre-packaged snacks? Grab our snack guide for all the ideas and no more thought-work!