How Many Times a Day Should Kids Eat?

by Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD on June 22, 2012

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I’ve been reading a lot about snacking in children and whether or not it’s necessary. Some say snacks need to go, except one afternoon nosh, and others say their kids couldn’t survive without constant fuel.

So I wanted to dig into this topic by evaluating the research and providing insight. But first, let’s review the reason snacking is taking a hit in the first place.

The Snacking Problem

Research shows that snacks have risen from 1977 to 2006 with children moving from 2 to 3 snacks per day consisting of almost one-third of daily calories. There has also been an increase in salty snacks and candy as prime food choices, even though desserts and sweetened beverages remain the major sources of calories from snacks.

The calories from snacks have also gone up by 168 calories, with the largest increases in 2 to 6 years olds (182 calories).

So children are snacking more often on foods of low nutritional quality. Time to give up snacking? Not yet….

As stomachs grow so does time between meals

I think it’s important to take a step back and consider why young children need to eat more frequently than adults. For example, an adult’s stomach is about the size of a football while a toddler’s is the size of his fist. This is why newborns eat every 1-3 hours around the clock and as their stomachs grow, they can go longer and eventually stop the night feeds.

By one year, most children are eating about 6 times per day, with the last meal typically consisting of milk or a breastfeeding session. Toddlers tend to eat every 2-3 hours (5-6 meals) while preschoolers may be able to go 3, maybe even 4 hours between meals. Sample meal plans, like those in the American Academy of Pediatrics Handbook, recommend 3 main meals and 2 in between meal snacks for the average toddler/preschooler.

By school age, children can move to a “3 meal and one afternoon snack” routine, but timing of breakfast and lunch matter. For example, a child that starts school early (7:30), meaning breakfast is at 7 or earlier, who doesn’t have lunch until 12:30, would need something in between.

The foods recommended in between meals are nutrient-dense items to help fill nutritional gaps.

The (tricky) Research

The problem with the research in this area, which mostly looks at weight as the outcome, is there is no set definition for what is a snack, eating occasion or meal. Each study has different criteria, making the results less impactful.

When it comes to meal frequency, the research leans toward more frequent meals but not necessarily more snacking. Take a 2012 study published in American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, in which the food intake of 2,732 girls was examined over a 10-year period. The girls with a lower eating frequency had greater increases in Body Mass Index and waist circumference. Yet other studies such as The Bogalusa Heart Study (2003), showed snacking to be positively associated with excess weight.

Eating personality

Because population-based studies (epidemiologic) don’t prove cause and effect, it’s important to look at intervention studies, of which I found two. One, done back in the sixties, fed boarding school students either 3 times a day, 5 times or 7. The more frequent eating was associated with less weight gain in older children (10-16 years) but not younger ones (6-11). The authors hypothesize that this may have to do with the adolescent growth spurt, a time when appetite increases.

In the second study, published in the 2011 issue of Obesity, 18 normal weight and 17 obese children, between 6 and 10 years old, were given either three or five feedings in a day of the same calorie value. After each day, children were offered as much ice cream as they wanted. On the frequent feeding day, the obese children ate 73 calories more of ice cream while the normal weight children at 47 calories less. It was hypothesized that higher weight children do better on 3 bigger meals, but because this was short term — one day of each feeding — it’s difficult to say for sure.

Didier Chapelot, a leading researcher on eating patterns, sums up the research in his 2011 paper in the American Society for Nutrition:

An accurate distinction between meals and snacks is important because they are hypothesized to have opposite effects on energy balance. Specifically, a high meal frequency may prevent fat mass deposition, yet snacking may contribute to it.

Chapelot, who presented at the 2009 Experimental Biology conference, explains that what may be most important is letting hunger drive eating occasions.

Development, individual children and type of food

Understanding your child’s growth and development, something we go into great detail in Fearless Feeding, is key to deciding how often to offer food. As said earlier, younger children need to be offered food more frequently, but it’s important to remember that they should be the ones to choose to eat or not. With growth spurts and changing appetites, parents need to remember that eating is not supposed to be predictable every day.

Of course it’s always important to consider the individual child. For example, Little D (3 years old) would probably do fine eating 4 times a day because he’s a big meal eater. But when Big A was 3, she barely ate (she went 3 weeks one time eating only one bite at breakfast!) and frequent meals were a must.

But it’s not just how often a child eats, but what they are being fed. I think we need to stop defining snacks in terms of the “snack aisle” at the grocery store — fruit snacks, pretzels, crackers, granola bars etc. While once and awhile is fine, in between eating should be similar to main meals with fewer food groups, helping meet nutritional gaps and getting little ones (and adults) to the next meal with an appetite.

So tell me, how many times a day does your child eat? Is this a struggle for you?

References

Piernas, C., and Popkin BM. Trends in Snacking Amount U.S. Children. Health Affairs. 2010, 29 (3), 398-404.

Ritchie, D. Less Frequent Eating Predicts Greater BMI and Waist Circumference in Female Adolescents. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2012, 95, 290-296.

Nicklas, T.A. et al. Eating Patterns and Obesity in Children. The Bogalusa Heart Study. American Journal of Preventive Medicine. 2003, 25(1), 9-16.

Chapelot, D. The Role of Snacking in Energy Balance: a Biobehavioral Approach. American Society for Nutrition. 2011, 141, 148S-162S.

Mehra, R et al. Feeding Frequency and Appetite in Lean and Obese Prepubertal Children. Obesity. 2011, 19, 560-567.

Fabry, P et al. Effect of Meal Frequency in Schoolchildren. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 1966, 18, 358-361.

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{ 28 comments… read them below or add one }

Jenny June 22, 2012 at 8:52 am

We generally have two snacks per day. Usually one late morning and one before bed. The big trick for us has been moving to healthier snacks. Staying away from “snack aisle” treats for the most part. We do have those occasionally, but I don’t keep them in the house all the time any more.

It seems obvious to me now, but we tended to eat that stuff just because it was there. I try to keep bananas, apples, and nuts on hand all the time. I really don’t mind if the kids eat those any time, and they tend to save it for when they are actually hungry, and not just want a fun snack.

We do still have some less healthy things like chips and cookies, but they are more for an occasion and not a daily part of meals.

Things had really gotten out of hand with my four year old refusing all meals and only eating snacks. It’s going better, and I no longer nag him to eat. If the only snacks available are fruit and nuts and cheese, it’s not so bad.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 22, 2012 at 12:06 pm

Thanks Jenny. I think it’s reasonable to allow fruit if a child is hungry. I do that too. If my daughter really wants to eat between meals and it seems she’s extra hungry we eithe rmove up the meal or she can have a banana or orange. She also went through stages of eating very little at meals but now she is almost 6 and eats most of the time.

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LeAnne Ruzzamenti June 22, 2012 at 9:39 am

Maryann – thanks for always bringing the science together on these topics, it’s very helpful! I was taught early on in my twins’ lives to handle snacks like mini-meals having a few different food groups present, and it has really helped keep their overall eating healthy – sometimes they eat every bite of yogurt and granola for a snack and not one bit of dinner, but I still feel ok since they got important nutrients at snack time.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 22, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Thanks LeAnne. I use snack time to fill nutrition gaps too. If they skipped something at breakfast (like fruit) than that’s our morning snack. When protein is low at lunch, it’s a high protein afternoon nosh! Dinner I just relax and am always surprised by how they eat. Just when I think they won’t be hungry they ask for seconds and when I am sure htey will scarf it down they only want a little. Gotta love kids!

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Tawn June 22, 2012 at 9:56 am

I find it curious that there are so few studies on this! At my household, with my 2 and 3 year olds, we eat four times per day: breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner, with “snack” being more of a small meal than “snack” food. Occasionally, when nap and sleep times vary, I add a mid morning or evening snack as appropriate to the time from last meal to the next meal. We don’t eat in between meals (or drink milk/juice) and i find this allows my children to get hungry enough for a meal but not cranky hungry (if I see the cranky hungry starting, especially if a child ate lightly at the last meal, i move the next mealtime up.)

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 22, 2012 at 12:08 pm

Tawn — sounds like you found something that works for your family. I think a flexible routine works best!

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Sam June 22, 2012 at 12:29 pm

Maryann, I also appreciate that you include research highlights in your posts. I’m also surprised there are not more conclusive studies about snacking. Snacks are often seen in such a negative light, but I think if we broaden our idea about what to serve, we move away from the typical snack choices that often provide less nutritional value.

We have 3 meals but the number of snacks may vary depending on schedule and meal timing for that particular day – gotta stay flexible!

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2012 at 7:52 am

Thanks Sam. We are flexible too. Sunday seems to be a late breakfast and early lunch. I like to change up the routine a bit on the weekends!

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lori June 22, 2012 at 12:43 pm

My kids snack throughout the day. So much that people comment that they are always eating. I personally must eat every 90 minutes or so to keep my blood sugar steady. I try very hard to keep the snacks healthy. The constant mini-meals don’t really bother me. I figure they’ll get into a more structured eating schedule when they start school.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2012 at 7:54 am

Sounds like you have found something that works for your family. In the end, that’s what really matters!

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Brooke June 22, 2012 at 9:19 pm

I have 2 kids on opposite ends of the spectrum. A son that doesn’t care much about food and will be full after 3 bites some days so “snacks” definitely fill in the gap for him. But what I struggle with is with my daughter who will eat a full breakfast and then want a snack only when she hears her brother ask or when I offer something else to him to eat since I know that he had 3 bites of something earlier. What to do????

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2012 at 4:47 pm

Brooke — I would get a structure for eating main meals at snacks down. No matter what your children eat let them know when the next meal will be. If you offer your lite eater a snack right after a meal, he will be less likely to eat well at the main meal. Does that makes sense? See this post for more details http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2009/07/kids-planned-meals-and-snacks/

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moremadder June 23, 2012 at 2:09 pm

Making sure that snacks are healthy has been the key for me to relax about my (currently 3.5yo) son’s eating. If I buy traditional “snack” foods, I make sure they have whole grain, like graham crackers or whole grain gold fish. Most of our snacks though are fruit. My son typically eats a mid-afternoon snack and a snack immediately before bed. But I also tend to let him have fruit just about anytime he wants, except right before dinner. I sometimes think I should cut down on snacks because he often eats very little at dinner, but I guess that’s backward.

I should admit, though, that I have a pretty significant candy addiction, which inevitably means my son eats more candy between meals than I would like. He knows about all my stashes! I really need to cut out the sugar, for his sake as well as mine.

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 23, 2012 at 4:43 pm

Moremadder — you might want to try having a cut off time for the afternoon snack. So if dinner is at 6:30, don’t let him snack after 4pm. Just a thought…

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Anna June 23, 2012 at 6:30 pm

My 9-year old stopped wanting any snacks when he was 4. He just eats 3 meals a day. My 5-year old wants to eat every 2-3 hours through the entire day. I have no idea how he’s going to make it through all-day kindergarten come this fall. There is no snack time in kindergarten. Both my kids are very thin, athletic boys. I usually offer fruit, veggies with dip, homemade yogurt, or cheese as snack choices.

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Tracy N @TracyNRD June 26, 2012 at 10:20 am

Great info. As a mother of two – enjoyed this especially w/ science included! – TN

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Ramona June 26, 2012 at 1:13 pm

We went on vacation this past week and that helped drive home the knowledge of ‘snacks’ at least. My oldest (6) has succombed to peer knowledge that a ‘snack’ = sweet. When she asks for a snack, I ask if she is hungry. Usually she says no, she just wants something sweet. Fortunately, after a long swim session and she was really hungry, she ate a boiled egg and two bannanas. This was my first time in all this discussion that I was able to relate snack to nutrition with a solid example! I could see the lightbulb brighten a little.

It doesn’t help that ‘snacks’ at daycare/afterschool are always cracker/sucker/cookie/no protein high carb food that leaves both my girls starving when we get home.

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Sarah June 29, 2012 at 12:25 pm

I have a 4 year old son who eats CONSTANTLY & that is not an exaggeration. We treat snacks as mini-meals & I strive to have foods from 3 or 4 of the food groups on the plate (We don’t have foods with added sugar, corn syrup, no junk food – chocolate, cookies, cupcakes or added preservatives in our house). He eats a lot at both meal & snack times – and he is saying he is hungry ALL THE TIME. He eats breakfast, lunch, dinner but he also asks for food every hour to hour and a half. It is no stretch for him to eat 8 or 9 times he eats during a normal day. Yet he is consistently losing weight and is actually considered underweight based on height (he’s VERY tall for his age) and age & he is a huge ball of energy. I know young children need to eat frequently because of the small size of their stomachs..but that often?

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 29, 2012 at 1:16 pm

Sarah — I would check a few things. I she getting enough fat and protein? These foods tend to satisfy and keep kids fuller for longer. Also, you might want to consider adding in some wholesome treat foods like homemade cookies and muffins. Children that don’t get any of these foods may grow up to become more obsessed with them or food in general (kids naturally crave sweet tastes). There is room in the diet for such foods in a nutritious diet for kids — about 10% of the diet. And like I said, if you make them at home you can feel good about the ingredients.

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Anne July 1, 2012 at 8:16 am

My 3-year-old typically has a snack in the morning and usually doesn’t want a snack in the afternoon. If he doesn’t ask or want a snack in the morning, I don’t worry about it but may serve lunch a little earlier than normal. I try to give healthy snacks (fruit) but sometimes it happens to be graham crackers or goldfish. In the afternoons, he doesn’t ask nor wants a snack. But if I’m chopping veggies for dinner he’ll snag a few (which I don’t mind at all). He usually eats good meals so I don’t worry about the snacks. I let him tell me he is hungry and wants something to eat.

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Crystal August 6, 2012 at 1:38 pm

I appreciate this article. I’m also a little concerned because my four year old daughter wants to eat almost every two-two and half hours. The doctor says her weight and height are fine. A growth spurt maybe?

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Dean Ethridge January 2, 2013 at 4:40 pm

Snacking is a bone of contention between me and my ex-wife. My son is malnourished and won’t eat anything I feel out of control for his feelings. She doesn’t have any snacks at all, and though he is a picky eater, she sends him to bed hungry if he won’t eat what she fixes. He doesn’t like Milk, and she makes him drink it. I feel like she robs him of his maturation process by all the control and brow-beating.

That’s another story, but I want my son to mature, eat well, and eat proper foods. I’ve tried getting Vemma juice supplements, JuicePlus gummies which he likes, and I feel better about putting nutrition in his body. At any rate, thanks for the article and will bookmark your site. Great blog!

Dean

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD January 6, 2013 at 8:45 am

Thanks Dean. Good luck with your ex-wife. It sounds like your son needs in between eating times, a more relaxed approach to feeding and to have some food at the table he will eat. He’s lucky to have you!

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Marci March 19, 2013 at 7:02 am

I feel like my 2 1/2 year old does often eat snacks out of routine. Se loves Food and gets excited for snacks and meals. I find this age to be so routine in most aspects, but do I need to change this? How do you teach this age to eat when they are hungry and not because of the time? Also, have you ever addressed how to deal with a kid asking for seconds? I usually tell her if she’s hungry she can eat the other items on her plate (since its usually the bread item that gets eaten first that she wants immediate seconds of). Any suggestions or do you have a post I can be referred to?

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Insurance June 11, 2013 at 10:04 pm

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Maryann Tomovich Jacobsen, MS, RD June 12, 2013 at 6:46 am

Sure!

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groegr February 27, 2014 at 9:25 am

my child eats whenever they want to because they hate me.

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nand May 7, 2014 at 5:42 am

VERY INTERESTING USEFUL

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