Ask the nutritionist.

It seems like my 6-year-old is constantly asking for a snack, even though she eats balanced meals throughout the day. How often do kids need a snack? What kinds of foods should I offer and how big of a portion size? Does snacking “spoil” their lunch or dinner?

Snacks are a great way to fuel kids between meals and ensure they are getting the nutrients they need. Most children need two or three planned snacks a day; between breakfast and lunch, lunch and dinner and sometimes before bedtime.

Think of snacks as a “mini meal” or a way to add in nutrients they might be missing at meal times. Try to include a source of complex carbohydrate from a fruit, vegetable, whole grain or starch along with a source of protein and/or fat. This will give your children a quick energy source from the carbohydrates along with nutrients like protein, fat and fiber to slow digestion so they aren’t hungry too quickly. Some snack examples are fruit with cheese, nut or seed butter and whole-wheat crackers, veggie sticks with hummus or dressing, yogurt and fruit, or trail mix with whole grain cereal nuts, and dried fruit.

Make sure you are offering a variety of foods at meal times as well. Foods that contain protein, fat and fiber can help keep kids full longer and can prevent them from getting hungry too quickly. Also, consider offering foods that they may be asking to snack on between meal times at meals. This may help lessen the interest of eating these foods between meals.

As far as portions go, there is no specific recommendation as children may be more or less hungry at snack times. The goal is to allow your child to listen to their bodies and eat the portion they are hungry for. There are two different approaches to this, one is offer a small portion (i.e an ounce of cheese and 5 crackers) and if they finish the portion and are still hungry offer more. Another approach is to offer a snack plate from which they can serve themselves and take as much as they are hungry for.

If snacks are planned with a good spacing, about 2 hours between meals, they should come to the meal hungry. If snacks are too close to meal time or if they have multiple snacks between meals they may have less of an appetite at meal time and be less likely to eat.