How Do I Change My Child’s Summer Eating Habits?

My husband doesn’t believe me. “How can we spend $300 on groceries and have nothing left by Tuesday!,” he laments. I get it … I wouldn’t believe it either if I didn’t see it with my own eyes. But I have seen it; every day this summer, my boys have eaten enough to feed a small village. And they’re still hungry!

I sat down with no-nonsense, Dallas-based nutritionist Caroline Susie, RD to find a solution to my problem. An award-winning, self-proclaimed “dietitian by day, foodie by night,” Susie frequently appears on NBC DFW, Fox 4 News, WFAA and more to share her honest and logical approach to health.

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Hi Caroline! My children are eating everything in sight this summer. Should children follow the same three meals/two snacks schedule recommended for adults?
Absolutely! The most important part of creating healthy eating habits in adults and children is keeping a regular eating schedule. There isn’t a “most important meal of the day;” it’s consistency that’s key. Your children should expect to eat every two-to-three hours from breakfast until dinner. This will keep their bodies properly fueled and safe from crashing. Just like adults, if they don’t eat enough earlier in the day, they are prone to overeat later.


How can I tell if my child is going through a growth spurt, or if he is just adopting the bad habits of eating too much/too often?
What I would say to you is that you can’t know for sure. However, if your child is eating on that three-meals/two snacks schedule, he should be full. There are a couple of factors at play here: making sure the meals and the snacks are balanced and making sure the portions are adequate.

In order to create the sensation of fullness, each meal and snack offered needs to be a combination of fiber and protein. This could be an apple with nut butter, yogurt with berries, “ants on a log,” homemade trail mix (nuts, dried fruit, pretzels, low-sugar cereal), string cheese and a pear, cheese toast, oatmeal with peanut butter, deli meat with cheese and fruit, etc. If your child is really going through a growth spurt, offer larger portion sizes of these foods instead of letting him eat more frequently.

Also be mindful about where your children are eating. If they are used to plopping in front of the TV and grazing all day, they’re probably just eating out of habit or boredom. Make sure meals are served at the table and not in the living room. This has nothing to do with keeping the couch clean and everything to do with establishing practices of mindful — and, therefore, more satisfying — eating.


When we’re talking about portion sizes, how much does the average child need?  Young children should get three-to-five ounces of whole grains, 1½ cups of veggies, 1½ cups of fruit, two-to-four ounces of protein and 2½ cups of dairy per day. is a great resource for parents who want to learn more. My best advice is to serve your children the same food you eat; their plates should look like mini versions of your own. Model good eating habits in front of them, and — even if it’s not immediate — it will eventually make a difference.

Any tips on getting them to eat those aforementioned veggies?
Please don’t force your children to eat anything. I get that it’s tempting, but don’t even use the “just try one bite” rule. Serve their meals with a safe food (something you know they’ll eat) on the plate, and just keep introducing the vegetables alongside it over and over again.

Always talk about color when you talk about food with your children. They are not interested in what is “healthy” or “good for you,” but telling them that blue foods help their brains or red food helps their hearts is pretty cool. Also, don’t rule out the possibility that you may just have a total pain-in-the-butt, picky eater. That has nothing to do with you! You did nothing wrong. If little Timmy won’t eat his veggies now, he will one day. Just stay consistent and quit worrying about it.

How often should I be allowing treats?
I think it’s completely fine for a child to have one “treat” (sweets, fried foods, chips) every day. As long as it’s a healthy portion, introducing one treat a day can help lay the groundwork for a healthy relationship with sweets/unhealthy foods. If you don’t demonize treats, your children will learn how to incorporate them into their balanced diets. They only become a problem if the portions are too large or if they are enjoyed too frequently.


Should I close the kitchen after dinner, or is that messing with my children’s ability to trust their own hunger?
As I mentioned earlier, predictable meal times are very important. However, if you have increased your child’s portion sizes and he is still waking up hungry in the middle of the night, you may need to add a bedtime snack to the schedule. Same rules of protein/fiber meal balance apply.

Should my children take a probiotic daily? And how important is dairy?
Probiotics certainly can’t hurt, but they’re not doing anything yogurt can’t do. As for dairy, I’m a big believer. It’s an important vehicle for calcium and vitamin D, and there are now studies linking children who drink milk alternatives with being shorter than their milk-drinking counterparts. People need to quit believing “Karen” on Facebook spouting dairy myths and instead consult the experts. Osteoporosis is a childhood disease with adult consequences.

If your children aren’t milk drinkers, try mixing in chocolate powder. Or how about making a fruit smoothie, mixing milk into their oatmeal, or finishing dinner with a pudding cup?

If we notice our child is putting on extra weight, how should we handle that?
You don’t. If your child is putting on some extra weight and his pediatrician is not concerned, just continue to serve him healthy foods on a regular schedule. He is most likely about to go through a growth spurt.

Keep offering balanced meals and snacks at predictable times. Stay active as a family, and have some fun! You don’t want to make the weight an issue and risk triggering an unhealthy relationship with food.


How much exercise or physical activity should our children get each day? Should we get them to “workout “ — creating that lifelong habit — or just play?
Whether you are a child or an adult, everyone should “play” for 30–60 minutes each day. Model this healthy behavior and make it a priority in your life. Explain to your children that you’re going to yoga or spin class because that’s what you love … that’s your “play.” Speak to them in these terms, and show them that you do it because it’s fun, not because it’s an obligation. It will make a difference to them.

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Get Caroline’s Must-Have Snack List, Trader Joe’s Staples and “Just Tell Me What To Eat” Meal Plan here.


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