When stuck at home, day in and day out, it can seem like any time is the right time for food. Boredom, indecision, and actual hunger combined with being in close proximity to the kitchen at all times drives kids (and adults) toward constant grazing turning breakfast, lunch, and dinner into a 24-hour buffet.
Not only can this be stressful for parents - who spend all their time preparing food and then cleaning up from it - free-range grazing is can lead to overeating. During times of such uncertainty, like during a world-wide pandemic and economic collapse, grazing (especially on comfort food) is not surprising and because we're all dealing with the emotional and physical stress in our own way it's important to be kind to ourselves and our family as they search for their own coping mechanisms.
But if you're looking to set some limits on meal and snack time while stuck at home we have some ideas for you.
1. Schedule Snack Time
Constant grazing is challenging for parents - and doesn't necessarily help kids' eating habits in the long run. It may seem excessive, but having a set time for meals and snacks makes it easier to tell your kids that the kitchen is closed. Not literally closed, of course, but off limits for a little while.
"Closing" the kitchen also helps your kids build up an appetite, which gives you an opportunity to talk with them about - and for them to feel - hunger and fullness (feeling hunger is something we try to protect our kids from, but under conditions of food security, it's not a bad thing). Scheduling eating times helps establish a rhythm and foundation for meals and snacks - which is comforting for kids and extremely helpful for parents.
2. Pre-Pack (Just Like for School)
When it's in session, my three kids bring their own snack and lunch to school (they attend a small parent-teacher coop that doesn't offer hot lunch). After one week stuck at home, trying to home school, run a business, parent, and try to maintain some sense of mental health, I found myself scrambling to get lunch on the table. My husband and I were jumping from teaching math to reading to 1st grade zoom calls to ensuring that no urgent emails had come through (and dealing with those that had) that by the time either of us was ready to start thinking about what to serve for lunch we had blown past lunchtime.
So I've started pre-packing morning snacks and lunch (we use Planetbox and love it) so that I don't have to make that decision about what to serve when I have limited bandwidth to do so.
3. Make (& Show) Your Meal Plan
As challenging as it may be, continuing to create and display a meal plan for your family can be extremely reassuring (for all of you). And taking time to make a plan when you have the energy and mental capacity to do so will prevent you from needing to make last minute decisions about what to serve for lunch at 12:20 pm when you and your kids are begging for food and you've already spent your morning caffeine boost teaching two-digit math.
No matter how much detail you usually put into your meal plan, it's a good idea to try to make a little time each week to at least sketch the boundaries of what you are going to serve during the week. At our house we use a (cheap) custom designed meal planner (pictured above) - because I'm super Type-A like that. Once completed, it's hung on the fridge so that everyone can see it - and knows what the plan is for the day. (We have some extras, so give a shout (firstname.lastname@example.org) if you'd like one!)
Creating - and sticking to - a meal plan gets everyone on the same page about what and when dinner and sacks will happen and gives you something to point to (literally!) when your kids ask "when can I eat again?" and "what's for dinner?"
4. Teach Your Older Kids How to Cook
This may seem obvious for those of you with bigger kids - and impossible for those of you with little ones running around who still need help wiping their butts and noses - but eventually your kids CAN COOK for themselves. And they should!
Encourage this independence by having foods around the house that they can prepare themselves. Even if it's nothing more than boxed Mac & Cheese or Ramen or a hard boiled eggs or a PB + Jelly sandwich ... if they are becoming self-sufficient it's a good thing. (And if you're worried about them always having a balanced diet, keep some carrot sticks in the fridge and encourage that as a side.)
Giving your kids a little power over their meals helps to alleviate some of the stress that comes from always needing to be the one in the kitchen. And it's still okay to set some limits on what - and when - they eat.