Snacks should be served in smaller portions than meals and should consist primarily of healthy (nutrient-dense) foods -- preferably at least two food groups, so your child's hunger is satisfied until the next meal. Healthful snack foods include fresh or dried fruits and vegetables; bread, crackers, pretzels, rice cakes; and/or protein foods such as peanut butter or hummus, and nonfat or low-fat cheese, yogurt, and milk. Try fruit and string cheese or yogurt.
Stocking the house with healthy foods encourages good nutrition, and many parents find it wisest not to keep the tempting, unhealthy treats around at all. It's hard to keep your child away from less healthy foods like high-sugar, high-salt, high-fat foods if you keep them in the house. And not having to say no means fewer tantrums. If you give in to the demand for snacks, it can just make the problem worse.
Many children will help themselves to food as soon as they are old enough to open the refrigerator and cabinets. But most young children don't make good decisions about what to eat. You'll need to explain to your child why he can't just help himself without asking.
Supervise him closely so he knows you mean what you say. If the requested food fits into the next snack or meal, you can say yes and tell him why, and when he'll be able to have it, so he understands your rules. Otherwise, a child can get used to having too much say in deciding what and when to eat, and when you have to tell him no, he may feel entitled to sneak food.
If a child is very focused on taking his own food, see if you can figure out why he's doing it when he's not really hungry. You'll need to remind him that you're in charge, and why. Also make sure that his meals are balanced and served at regular times. Help him find ways to keep occupied. Keeping busy and active, and spending time with you, can fill your child’s emotional needs better than food can.
When your child has other caregivers at your home, they need to know your rules around food and your reasons. Even at your child's nursery school, kindergarten, or child care center, you may need to explain your food rules and reasons to the teachers.
The children need to hear you explain this to the caregivers, including suggestions for activities to redirect the children toward when they're nagging for treats. This will emphasize to your child that your commitment to nutritional guidance is serious.
Annye Rothenberg, Ph.D., has been a child/parent psychologist for more than 25 years. Her parenting psychology practice is in Redwood City, California. She is also on the adjunct faculty in pediatrics at Stanford University School of Medicine. Dr. Rothenberg is the author of the award-winning books Mommy and Daddy are Always Supposed to Say Yes … Aren’t They? and Why Do I Have To? Her just-released book, written in consultation with noted pediatric dietitians, is I Like To Eat Treats. Her books are all-in-one, with a story for young children and a manual for parents. For more information about her work, visit her site.