Often I am asked, “When are the best times to eat?” “Is it bad to eat at night?” “Am I supposed to eat several times a day?” And the truth is, there is not one way that is “right.” I will answer these questions and share what we do know about meal timing.
Do you or your kids feel irritable, tired, unmotivated or shaky during the day? Do you skip meals, then arrive home ravenous and eat a huge dinner to satisfy your hunger? Meal timing is important because it helps us regulate our blood sugar levels, which affect our energy level and mood throughout the day. Low energy levels during the day are a sign of low blood sugar. Eating one large meal results in a blood sugar spike, leaving our bodies scrambling to digest such a heavy load, and again, exhausted. When we do not eat regularly, we do not feel or perform our best.
Meal timing also helps us pay attention to the hunger and fullness signals our bodies give us. Eating one large meal will affect appetite later. Many people, both children and adults, share with me that they do not eat breakfast, and some skip lunch too. They eat one large meal later in the day and are left feeling too full, which perpetuates the cycle as they are not yet hungry again in the morning. This is not a healthy meal pattern.
What are the best times to eat? Well, it depends on your schedule, the exact hours will vary from person to person depending on daily obligations. I always recommend eating a balanced meal at least three times a day. What about snacks? If you like to eat more frequently, you can work snacks in too. Kids often need a snack between meals because their energy needs are high and it is hard for some to eat enough at meals (anyone have a picky eater?). A meal should keep you satisfied for about three to four hours before you start feeling hungry again (if you can go longer than that, you may have overdone it!). If it’s not quite time for your next meal, eat a light snack to tie you over to mealtime. A snack should keep you satisfied for an hour or two before you start feeling hungry again. If you or your kids are not used to eating regular meals, it might take some practice to recognize signs of hunger and fullness and to train your body to deliver these signals reliably again.
Deciding on a meal and snack schedule is one of our jobs as parents. Experts agree that the kitchen need not be open for service for kids 24/7. It is important for children to have periods between meals and snacks to digest and allow their hunger to build again for the next meal. Use your family’s daily schedule to determine the best times for breakfast, lunch and dinner. If your kids are hungry between meals, plan snacks as well. In our family, we usually start with a morning snack upon waking early in the morning, have breakfast about an hour later, followed by lunch midday, an afternoon snack, and finally dinner. You as a parent will decide what works best for your family.
And what about meal frequency as a part of your plan? Is it better to eat several times a day? Not necessarily. Whether you eat three or six times a day is a matter of personal preference. One thing to know is that eating more frequently doesn’t always mean eating more food overall, a day’s worth of food is just spread out over more meals and snacks.
Is it okay to eat at night? It is a common misunderstanding to think that eating late causes weight gain. The truth is, too much food causes weight gain. If a person eats dinner at five or six o’clock in the evening, they may feel hungry by eight or nine. Respect your body’s hunger, eat a light nutritious snack—fruit, yogurt, a piece of toast with peanut butter. Or maybe your bedtime snack isn’t so nutritious, but feeds your spirit. I like to enjoy tea and cookies at night! Whatever you choose to eat an hour or two before bed, keep it around 100 calories. A large bowl of cereal or ice cream is going to far exceed that!
I hope these guidelines help you and your family decide on a regular meal schedule that works for everyone! What other meal timing questions do you have? Please ask in the comments below!