“Can I have a snack?” “Mom, I’m hungry!” If you’re a parent, you’re probably all too familiar with these seemingly endless demands. It may feel like you’re always in the kitchen slicing fruit, plating grilled cheese sandwiches, or running to the store because somehow the fridge and pantry are empty again. And just when you think they’ve eaten a hefty portion at dinner (and you’re thrilled!), they’re begging for goodies minutes later. So what’s the deal? Why does it seem like your kids are always hungry? As a dietitian and mom of two, I see this all the time, and I’ve found that there are a few possible factors at play—and some simple ways to help solve them.  

1. They’re growing 

Sometimes we underestimate just how much food our kids need to fuel their growing bodies. Your kiddo will go through several growth spurts during their childhood and adolescence—the major one occurring between 8 to 13 years in girls and 10 to 15 years in boys—and sometimes they just need more fuel to keep up. Especially if you’ve got a tween or teenager, puberty can hit like a ton of bricks, turning them into reckless kitchen raiders in search of all the grub. You’ll start noticing them growing out of their clothing or shoes, voice changes, hair growth, emotional changes (mood swings! eye-rolling!), and maybe they’re sleeping past noon whenever they get the chance.

While toddler growth spurts aren’t as drastic as the one during puberty, your tot may have a few mini periods of growth between ages 1 and 3. There may be times when they ask for seconds at dinner (hooray!), sleep for longer stretches, or complain that their legs hurt (growing pains). 

The solve:

  • Serve foods high in calories: Think beef, eggs, cheese, avocado, and peanut butter. 
  • Cut out those light, airy snacks that don’t have too many calories per serving, like popcorn and puffs. Instead, offer calorie-dense foods like granola, protein bars, trail mix, beef jerky, or peanut butter sandwiches.
  • Add calorie boosters to their food: Olive oil, avocado oil, coconut oil, melted butter, and nut butter can also be easily swirled into their yogurt and oatmeal or slathered on toast.
  • Reduce distractions at mealtime: When your kiddo is preoccupied with the TV, phone, or other electronics it may divert their attention away from their food.

2. They’re not eating the right foods

Your kiddo may be eating more frequently because the food they’re munching on isn’t actually filling them up, so instead of feeling satisfied after a meal or snack, they’re hungry again 20 minutes later. Plus, they may be snacking on foods that spike their blood sugar (candy, juice, cookies!), which means they’re hungry again soon after.

The solve:

  • Offer foods loaded with protein and fat, which will keep them energized and full, and keep their blood sugar in check. Foods high in protein include chicken, beef, fish, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, and chickpea pasta. Fatty foods include cheese, nuts and nut butter, seeds, avocado, and butter. 
  • Include fiber-rich ingredients, which will keep your kids full between meals. Think of fiber-rich foods as the hearty stuff like quinoa, rolled oats, brown rice, or whole-wheat tortillas. A quick tip when grocery shopping—always look for the word “whole” before the grain on the ingredient list. If it says “wheat” or “enriched wheat,” that’s not what you want.
  • When offering treats and desserts that can spike your kiddo’s blood sugar, pair them with protein and fat to keep them full and keep their blood sugar in check. For example, give their bowl of ice cream a nutritional boost by mixing some chia seeds or flaxseeds in with their rainbow sprinkles, or swirling in some peanut or almond butter.

3. They’re grazing 

If your kid can freely raid the snack drawer or if you don’t have set times for meals and snacks, chances are they’re probably grazing throughout the day. In doing so, they’re coming to meals less hungry and eating less of the foods that matter more. As a result, they’re filling up on flimsier snacks and not getting enough food to fill their belly. Over time, constantly snacking can mess with their ability to tell when they’re genuinely hungry or full, making them rely on external cues (like convenience or boredom) over their hunger signals.  

The solve:

  • Establish regular meal and snack times to make it easier for kids to know when it’s time to eat. Toddlers and young kids haven’t quite mastered the ability to judge for themselves.
  • Store snacks out of reach of little kids so they can’t grab them whenever they want. 
  • Have an open conversation with tweens and teens, because with bigger kids it’s less about setting strict boundaries. Explain why grazing isn’t the best idea to help put things into perspective so that when they open the snack drawer, they’re actually hungry.

4. They’re bored or stuck in a routine

Kids may turn to food when they’re bored because, well, it’s something to do. Over time this can turn into a bad habit, and they may snack on foods when they’re not actually hungry. Other kids are used to snacking at specific times, like in the car on the way to soccer practice or when they get home from school. They may nibble on something simply because it’s “snack time,” a part of their routine, and not because they are genuinely hungry. Breaking the association between a specific time, habit, or external cue and eating could be the first step toward putting an end to this type of snacking.

The solve:

  • Offer planned meals or snacks, every two to three hours. According to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, kids should receive three meals and about 1 to 2 snacks per day. In a twelve-hour period, that means a meal or snack every two to three hours. 
  • Limit eating to designated locations such as the kitchen or dining room. This way, eating in the car, on the couch, or in their bedroom is off-limits. Plus, it’s one step closer to disassociating food from boredom.
  • Keep food out of sight, tucked away in drawers or the pantry. Sometimes kids will ask for a snack simply because it’s in their line of vision.

If you get to the bottom of why your kid is always hungry, you’ll be able to help them find a routine that works. Lucky for you, you may also be pleasantly surprised by fewer trips to the grocery shopping and fewer hangry children demanding snacks. 

Just as a heads up, if your kiddo’s appetite suddenly swings in either direction, it could indicate an underlying medical condition, so be sure to consult their pediatrician to see what’s up. 

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