As a dad, every day is full of food dilemmas like what to eat and when. One that comes up a lot is, “Should I feed my kids after school, so close to dinner time? Will it ruin their dinner?”
Thankfully, I have a few rules that help me with this one.
Rule 1: If they are hungry, let them eat.
I don’t know about your kids, but mine come back from school famished. And when I think about their eating schedule, it isn’t hard to understand why. These kiddos are left alone to feed themselves during lunch (which lasts all of 20 minutes), and most of what I send for lunch comes back uneaten. By the time they come home, their blood sugar has plummeted and their mood is either manic, cranky, or morbid.
The lesson being: if they want food, I give it to them. But what should I give? That is the question.
Rule 2: It isn’t a snack, it is a first course of dinner.
If you think of the hour and a half before dinner as a time for an appetizer, rather than a traditional after-school snack, it’s easier to think of appropriate foods to dish up. This mentality guides me towards serving real food, rather than snacks that threaten to fill them with empty calories.
So, what’s a normal first course? Usually, it’s something healthy and relatively light: a combination of fruits/veggies and a protein. I figure that if I can get veggies into them while they’re hungry, I won’t have to pester them as much about it during dinner, which is an added bonus.
My six “go-to” first courses are:
- Peanut butter and apples
- Cut-up vegetables (carrots, green beans, cucumber slices) and hummus (or any cream cheese-y dressing)
- Cheese slices and apples (or another fruit, like grapes)
- Yogurt and frozen blueberries
- Chick peas and Italian dressing, or black beans and salsa. To prepare this, I literally open a can of beans, mix it with dressing or salsa, and give my kids a spoon.
- Bananas cut in slices, served with cocoa powder.
Would they rather have Cheezits, granola bars, or popsicles? Sure. Do I offer them? No. Those are empty calories, which crowd out the rest of the good stuff.
Rule 3: Make it special.
Never miss an opportunity to make food intentional and meaningful. Even during this appetizer phase, you can light a candle, use a napkin, sit on the floor like a picnic, or eat outdoors in the yard if the weather is nice.
And sit with them—be with them. Even if that means playing music or doing a crossword puzzle. Your presence is what’s important here.
Rule 4: Let them guide the discussion.
There is nothing more futile in my house than asking my kids how school was or what they did—it’s like asking me about work after a long, hard day. They have been talked to for the last six hours. Silence is just fine.
Just being next to them (or reading them a story) is a great way to share your love, and show them that you care in a way that doesn’t feel pestering.
If I get the sense that they might want to talk, I have two other strategies for helping them open up. First, I might tell a story from my day. Stories inspire stories, and if you share first they might follow suit. Next, I might ask a question that is a little out of the ordinary, as in, “Tell me a story about something surprising that happened to you today,” or “What is one thing you learned today that you think I might not know?”
If your children seem troubled or distant in an unusual way, you might take a look at some advice from FDP’s resident expert Dr. Anne Fishel – she is who I trust when I need advice. And if you have advice of your own, send it in! We are always looking for new ideas!