Tips to Close the “Hangry” Gap between Daycare and Dinner Time

“Mommmm, can I have a snack?” repeated over and over and over, especially after school or daycare, (before dinner is ready). Does this sound familiar?! 

Toddlers and school-aged kids demanding snacks throughout the day is a common struggle parents deal with. As a pediatric dietitian and mom of three, I know all too well how it can feel easier to give in to the whining request for a snack, in order to avoid a meltdown. But the truth is, effectively stepping in to your role in the parent-child feeding relationship (i.e., Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility), means that you decide when, where, and what food is served. Your child’s role is to decide if they eat, and how much without interference or pressure. See how so easily these roles can be reversed? 

So, what does this mean for closing the hunger gap between daycare and dinner? Don’t worry, I’ve got you! 

It all starts with consistency:

Creating a consistent feeding schedule is where the solution starts! Grazing on snack foods all day with no mealtime structure makes it difficult for children to learn about their hunger and fullness cues. Kids need to eat every 2-3 hours to meet their energy and nutrient requirements (think about those small tummies!), so offering meals and snacks regularly will help establish structure around feeding in your household. This type of structure allows ample time between eating opportunities to gain an appetite so that kids can come to the table feeling comfortably hungry, and then eat in response to that hunger, until they are satisfied. This is called “self-regulation”. When this structure is consistent and predictable, your kids will likely stop demanding snacks before dinner, firstly because they won’t be as hungry, and secondly because they know that a meal is coming soon and a random snack request will be turned down. 

It might mean a car-ride-home snack: 

But what if their last scheduled snack was more than 2-3 hours before dinner is ready…? First off, did you know, that in Spring 2022 as the Learning Tree’s registered dietitian, I recommended that a larger snack be served at 3pm (for this very reason) and The Learning Tree implemented it right away? This may have solved the afternoon hunger gap challenge for your family. But still, if dinner is later than 6pm, or if your child leaves daycare before 3pm, this challenge may persist. 

It’s worth noting that leaving TOO long of a gap between eating opportunities (more than 3 hours) can create challenges such as behaviour issues, meltdowns, and low energy (this happens to us adults too! Think of when you’ve been “hangry”). What can also happen is that it can actually impede or interfere with natural hunger for the dinner meal (in other words, when kids get too hungry, they can actually start to feel a false sense of fullness). This is why a second afternoon snack might be in order. Bringing a small but satisfying (protein + carbohydrate: something like a cheese string and apple slices) snack to offer your kids in the car on the way home from daycare might not be a bad idea. This way, you’ve closed the hunger gap, and it buys you some time to prepare the dinner meal when you return home. 

 Here are three more tips that can help: 

  • Batch cook dinner ahead of time.

Batch cooking meals ahead of time might be the ticket. This will help set your family up for success if your preference is for dinner to be ready right after work or right when the kids get home from daycare. This way, it will only take a few minutes (or less!) to get dinner on the table, and it will lessen stress for everyone. This strategy might work especially well for your family if you find that your kids are regularly “starving” when they get home, likely because their last snack was more than 2-3 hours ago. 

Batch cooking can look like preparing the protein food ahead of time for the entire week (like chicken breast, or ground meat) so that on busy weeknights, you can simply add them into a wrap with veggies, over pasta, or in tacos. Another idea? One-pot meals that can be frozen for later, such as soups, stews, casseroles, chilli, etc. Check out my top 5 slow cooker recipes for some ideas!

  • Try the “veggie-tray trick”:

It’s amazing how a simple veggie tray placed on the table before dinner can both nip snack time requests in the bud, while buying you some time to get dinner on the table! Oh, not to mention that it helps to give you some peace of mind knowing that your child gobbled up some veggies before the meal, so that you feel less inclined to pressure them to “eat their veggies” (because we know that this is not a good idea). I recommend having the veggie tray ready in the fridge so all you need to do is take it out and quietly put it on the table, so your kids are aware it’s there but there is no pressure for them to eat. Put 2-3 dips (e.g. ranch, hummus and even ketchup if that’s what your kids like!) on the table next to the veggies, so your kids have the option to explore the raw veggies in a fun way, with different flavors. 

  • Get kids to help with cooking! 

This option works really well in my house; my kids have taken a real liking to helping out with dinner prep, especially when it comes to mixing in sauces or adding chopped food into a pot. Being a part of the cooking process allows kids to experience food—while learning valuable life skills—before it ends up on their plate.

My kids also love being the taste-testers before the meal is actually served! I find this role helps them to feel involved with the creation of the meal that we will all enjoy together as a family. Tasting food before it goes into the pot (if safe to do so–for example with vegetables, canned beans, or tofu) helps to fill the time gap (and hunger gap) before dinner is ready, while also helping them to feel more adventurous when it comes to trying new foods.  

With these tips in mind, my hope is that you will find something that works for your family when it comes to navigating that hunger gap between daycare and dinner time! It might simply come down to tweaking your family’s mealtime schedule ever so slightly, to create that predictable schedule that I mentioned, or perhaps it’s spending a little bit of time on the weekend batch-cooking your protein. Do what works for you and your family ☺