I Feed My Kids A 'Fourth Meal' Almost Every Night

by Meredith Ethington
Originally Published: 
A boy in a white shirt drinking a glass of milk in front of an open refrigerator at a late hour as h...
PAKULA PIOTR / Shutterstock

If you’ve ever lovingly yelled, “No you can’t have a snack. It’s bedtime!!” then you might be a parent.

If you’re ever said yes to that question, then you might be me.

Somewhere along the way, we’ve gotten into the habit of giving our kids snacks before bed. I call it a fourth meal. It drives me bonkers, it drives my husband bonkers, and it certainly makes my mom give me the side-eye while she’s visiting.

I love those comments that are all, “I put asparagus and Brussels sprouts in front of my kid, and if you don’t cave, they won’t starve.” Or “They will learn to love veggies if you don’t give them a choice.” While in theory I subscribe to those same sentiments, in reality, I’m happy if my kids just eat something for dinner.

I also know that there are stubborn toddlers and willful tweens at my table who will not eat something if they think it’s gross, and my kids are little. They need to eat.

With my first, I was definitely on the organic, whole food bandwagon. My precious firstborn angel didn’t know what sugar was until she was at least 2. Then the second and third kids came along, and all hell broke loose in the eating department. If they want Peeps for breakfast, I think, well, at least they let me sleep in a little.

But there is a method to my madness when it comes to fourth meal around here. I make dinner ever night. Rarely do we get pizza or pour a bowl of cereal. I’m not trying to brag, because I’m all for doing what you need to do in your family, but this is just what I do. I cook — almost every single night.

Sometimes, my kids gobble it up, and sometimes each bite is negotiated individually with treats, toys, and screen time. But regardless, I find that an hour or two after dinner when it’s their bedtime, they’re asking for snacks. Sometimes, it’s something small like toast, other times, it’s a treat, and other times, we’re making an entire fourth meal.

And on the nights when they truly didn’t eat, we save their dinner and put it right back in front of them when they say they’re hungry before bed.

But most of the time, I find myself saying yes when my kids want another meal after dinner. Here’s why:

My kids have a freakishly fast metabolism that they get from their father. My husband is tall and skinny and must store his food in his skinny long legs because that man can eat — all day, all night. On the weekends, he lives in the kitchen crafting snacks and fifth, sixth, and seventh meals. My kids are genuinely hungry after dinner. I’ve seen my daughter eat two eggs with toast and a huge bowl of fruit on the side for her fourth meal. So I’m okay if they need a little something before bed. They’re growing, and they’re hungry.

I’ve learned to discern when it’s a stall tactic and when they’re actually hungry. Moms everywhere know that when a kid is really hungry, you can get them to eat stuff like bananas and yogurt. When they’re asking for gummy worms after dinner, then I know to say no. And if they’re truly hungry, they’ll eat more of the dinner we fixed.

My kids don’t eat great at school. It’s been an ongoing battle to get them to eat well during the school day, and frankly, it’s just not gonna happen. If I’m looking at their overall calorie intake for the day, it wouldn’t hurt them to squeeze another meal or snack in there. In fact, they probably need it.

They are little. My daughter especially has struggled with weight gain and growth. So when that girl says she’s hungry, guess what? I feed her. She needs the calories, but she also needs the energy to be healthy and do well in school. If it’s right before bed that she eats her best meal of the day, then so be it.

I don’t offer snacks if my kids don’t ask for them, but honestly, it’s just part of our family routine now. They snack before bed. Every night is different, and some nights, I don’t have the patience for it. On those nights, my kids are shoving a piece of plain bread in their mouths as they walk into the other room to brush their teeth.

Don’t get me wrong, there are many nights when we say no, too. If we get dinner on the table later than normal, then I say no to snacks because I know they aren’t hungry yet. And I remind my kids during dinner that the kitchen will be closed when that meal is over.

It’s an exhausting routine to have, because who wants to fix their kid an extra meal every day? Or clean up an extra mess? Mealtime is already one of my least favorite times of the day, but I’ve learned to just deal with it, expect it, and try my best to embrace it. It’s kind of a family tradition now. Because my scrawny little kids know full well that if mom goes to the effort of making that first dinner, they better eat it if they want a second one.

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