How to Handle After-School Snack Time

Kids are hungry, but dinner's going to be served in a couple hours. What's the best approach?

©. Personal Creations

As any parent knows, the first thing out of a kid's mouth when they come home from school is, "Can I have a snack?" I remember that feeling of being ravenous after school, and my own kids are no different. They race inside, drop their backpacks, and immediately root through the fridge and kitchen cupboards in search of something to eat.

To be honest, it drives me a bit crazy. They spend so much time building sandwiches, popping popcorn, slicing fruit and cheese, and spreading peanut butter that it eats into their hour of outdoor playtime -- and there's always a mess left in the kitchen. Sometimes they eat so much that, by the time dinner rolls around at 6, they're no longer hungry and just pick at their food.

One mother has found an innovative way to address the post-school snacking problem. Writing for Scary Mommy, Wendy Wisner says she started giving her kids dinner at 3 p.m.

"One recent afternoon I had this lightbulb moment: What if I just start feeding them dinner at 3 or 4pm, when they’re clearly the hungriest? Like a healthy meal (or as healthy as my picky as h*ll kids will eat) and save the snacks for later? Well, this little plan has been implemented for a few months, and let me tell you: It’s the Best. Idea. Ever."

Wisner cooks pasta, nuggets, grilled cheese, and veggies for the kids, and they devour them. Once full, they tackle homework at a leisurely pace and have a calmer, longer evening. Close to bedtime, they may need another snack, but at that point Wisner's not too concerned because she has gotten the most important meal into them already.

It's an interesting approach that might work well for some parents, but I don't think it would fly in my household. First, I wouldn't want the kids to miss out on the family eating together. It's impossible for me and my husband to be home that early and I just don't like the idea of us eating separately. Second, not to take anything away from Wisner's food choices, but I'm not a big fan of simple 'kid food.' I like to cook big flavorful meals, like spicy curries, stews, grilled kebabs, pilaf, and garlicky roasts, which I think are important for kids' developing palates, and there is no way I'd have time to do this prior to school pickup.

Instead, I've dealt with the after-school snacking extravaganza by implementing a few rules. The first thing I ask my kids now is, "Have you finished your lunch?" Quite often the answer is no, so it's no wonder they are starving at 3 o'clock. I insist that they eat whatever is left in their lunch boxes before making anything else.

Then, I limit their snacking options; it's no longer a free-for-all in the kitchen. The snacks they're allowed to have are healthy, basic, and unexciting. The idea is to fill them up efficiently. Cream cheese on a slice of whole wheat bread, an apple with peanut butter, a banana, a handful of nuts, or a few tortilla chips with salsa -- that's about it.

I have also put a cap on snack time. We get home from school at 3:30, which means they need to be out of the kitchen and playing outside by 3:45. If they haven't eaten enough by then, tough beans. They have to wait till supper.

Finally, my kids know that they must eat their dinner, no matter what. They're given a reasonably sized portion, not too much of anything, but there is an expectation to eat what's served; nor are they allowed to be excused from the table until they've finished.

I must say, though, that Wisner's idea of extending the post-meal time by three extra hours seems absolutely luxurious. Just think of all the playing, reading, wrestling, and bathing that could happen in that time frame, as opposed to the mad scramble my husband and I undertake daily to get the kids in bed by 7 o'clock. While 3 is definitely pushing it for me (that when my Italian friends are wrapping up their lunchtime and settling in for an afternoon rest), maybe there's something to be said for eating at 4:30 or 5 on occasion.

If you have kids, how do you handle after-school snacking?