#20: Hunger & tantrums: How to prevent the hangry meltdown

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Hunger tantrums and hunger meltdowns are absolutely a thing with toddlers! You might call it hangry (the combination of “hungry” and “angry”) and I bet you’ve experienced this with your toddler at some point. If not, it’s coming for you so you get the bonus of being prepared! 

But you’ve probably even felt it yourself. When you’re so hungry that you start snapping at everyone and you just NEED to get something in your body. So I’m going to talk about the quickest way to bring them out of that hangry state and how to prevent if from happening in the first place.

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About Feeding Toddlers Made Easy

This is Feeding Toddlers Made Easy, the Mama Knows Nutrition podcast. I’m your host Kacie Barnes, Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, Master of Clinical Nutrition, mom of a new first grader and a 3 year old- she may actually be 4 by the time you hear this! Feeding Toddlers Made Easy solves your nutrition and food questions that you send in to me, go to mamaknowsnutrition.com/podcast to submit your question and that’s where you’ll find show notes from all of the episodes, too. Please take a second to hit subscribe so I’m always here when you need me!

Question about hunger tantrums

Let’s hear from Leslie:

Hi Kacie, this is Leslie. I wanted to ask you for advice about my child who gets hangry. She’s three and half and she isn’t exactly picky, but we’ve gotten into a bad habit of grazing and her preference is pure fruit. So I have a hard time getting fats into her in order to get her to be full. 

Unfortunately this has resulted in a lot of hanger induced tantrums where I can’t get any food into her system to pull her through it. I’ve tried a lot of your suggestions on how to get fats into her, and I want to implement your meal schedule, but I’m worried about her getting hangry and uncontrollable tantrums in the transition. Any advice would be great. Thank you.

Why your toddler gets dysregulated when very hungry 

Feeling hungry can turn up the dial on any negative feelings, not just anger, but stress and frustration, too.

There may also be a drop in blood sugar. If your child hasn’t eaten in a few hours, the level of glucose, what we call blood sugar, decreases in the blood. When this happens, it triggers hormones to raise and rebalance your blood sugar. These hormones include cortisol and adrenaline. Cortisol is the stress hormone. The release of cortisol can cause temporary feelings of aggression. 

When kids experience low blood sugar it can be harder to control impulses and self-regulate. 

The other hormone I mentioned, adrenaline, is that fight-or-flight hormone. So when your child is VERY hungry, it can stimulate that fight or flight response and they can be in kind of a panic mode.

It’s very hard for them to self-regulate when they get too hungry. So your child is not really having a behavior problem that needs to be addressed in that moment, it becomes a physiological problem. You need to get them some food.

Can hanger cause hyperactivity?

I got a question on instagram saying, “Can hanger cause hyperactivity…4 yo gets crazy when hungry or tired!” And that goes back to that whole dysregulated thing. They do tend to get wacky when they are too hungry or very tired because they just can’t keep it together anymore.

Solutions when your toddler is hungry and melting down

The best solution for hanger is prevention. That’s why I am always talking about having a good meal and snack schedule for toddlers and young kids because access to food every few hours helps their body get what it needs to prevent them from becoming too hungry.

But it still happens sometimes- you have a day you’re out of routine, or they start off the day already having a hard time and you can barely get breakfast in them and it gets worse from there. or you end up being out longer than planned so lunch gets delayed an hour or two. These things happen.

  • Fruit juice: The fastest way to quickly raise blood sugar, glucose, back up, is to give them fruit juice. That can help get them feeling better while you work on getting their meal or snack ready.
    • I read a study that found drinking fruit juice with a meal does not decrease their appetite. So you should still be able to get them to eat a filling meal if they have juice with or right before their meal. If they have it about an hour before, it can decrease their appetite for the meal somewhat, so that’s just something to keep in mind.
    • This is NOT the time for the “juicy water” type drinks that are very watered down. You want them to get the actual juice, because water alone will not pull them out of their hangry situation.
solve hunger tantrums with 100% juice for your toddler
  • Don’t have any juice? That’s okay, it’s just a helpful quick fix to get you started on the right track. Something like an applesauce or other fruit pouch will help, too.
  • Or, just get them a meal right away. This is NOT the time to experiment with new foods, or unliked foods. That’s likely going to increase their anger and frustration. Go with something that they like. Try to keep yourself as calm as possible. In these moments when they can’t self-regulate they look to you. So as much as you can, do your best to take a deep breath and stay out of their hurricane.

Is getting enough fat in their diet an important factor?

Now Leslie mentioned fat in her message. She’s realizing that she needs to get her more calories and more satisfaction than fruit alone can provide.

While fat does absolutely help with calorie boosting, it’s not quite as satisfying or long-lasting as protein. 

We want to ensure a steady stream of protein throughout the day in meals and snacks to help prevent hanger, too. I’m not saying to go overboard on protein, but you do want to make sure it’s there. So let me give you some examples.

Proteins to include at breakfast:

  • Milk
  • Eggs (even a few bites is helpful) try this recipe for eggs in oatmeal
  • Yogurt
  • Nut butter
  • Hemp seeds
  • Protein waffles or pancakes
proteins to serve for breakfast

If they’re hangry in the morning, one mom DMed me on instagram and said that her little one won’t eat dinner, dinner is right before bed, and then is hangry in the morning. Make sure you’re offering a safe food at dinner, that’s a food they regularly eat and like, and make sure there’s not a snack too close to dinnertime. Otherwise just plan on having breakfast ready right when they wake up and bring them right to the table. 

Boosting protein in snacks

toddler girl with a smile eating a granola bar at a table

Snacks can be harder to get in protein sometimes, depending on your kid’s preferences. I would like to see at least 3-4g of protein in their snack if you tend to have the hangry issue. 

Instagram question: Quick easy food to give them so the hanger doesn’t escalate…sometimes you just can’t keep a good schedule when you’re out and about. 

Totally relate. So I’m going to share some snacks that are more like at-home snacks, and then I’m going to give you ideas for when you need to grab something to bring out with you.

Some ideas for you:

For even more healthy toddler-friendly grab and go snack ideas, get the Healthy Toddler Snack Guide!

Protein at lunch and dinner

Lunch and dinner are usually a little easier because we often tend to think about including a protein, but if they are picky, don’t eat much meat or don’t eat any meat, it can still be a challenge to get them to have something besides carbs. Remember you can always use a cup of milk as a protein source if you need to at a meal, whether that’s cow’s milk, breastmilk in a cup, goat’s milk, soy milk, or pea milk, those will all be good sources of protein.

And if you notice that they are coming to dinner hangry? You can either move dinner earlier, if that’s possible for your schedule, or set out some veggies with dip – or if they’re young just pop them in the high chair with some shredded carrots, thin cucumbers, or honestly just some cheerios works too if you need to throw something down because that happens.

Some kids will wait too long to eat and ignore their hunger because they would rather be doing something else, like playing. So for them you really wanna focus your energy on the transition to meal or snack time, and I have a free download about getting them to sit at the table longer that has tips on making that transition.

Preference for fruit and grazing

Leslie talked about her daughter’s preference for fruit. Grazing can be a challenge with that because if they have eaten within the past 1-2 hours, their body doesn’t have a chance to build up much of an appetite. So they want something, but they don’t ever get the feeling of like, I wanna eat a whole pizza! Or even like, yes that grilled cheese with spinach would really hit the spot right now.

If they are wanting fruit all the time I would offer it less frequently. They may be unhappy about that but if it’s not an option they are going to have to eat something else. And I would work towards getting on less of a grazing schedule and more of a structured meal/snack schedule to help regulate appetite.

Another way you can still consider the fruit preference while also getting in more calories, protein, AND fat, actually a couple ways:

  1. Smoothies – want more smoothie recipes leave a comment on that post and let me know
  2. Smoothie popsicles, just take the smoothie and freeze or try these Healthy Orange Popsicles – Here are great popsicle molds
  3. Add jelly to things – my son used to eat grilled cheese with jelly on top! But you can obviously go the traditional pb&j route, or pb & banana even
  4. Try my pineapple chicken recipe! 
  5. Fruit in yogurt
  6. Fruit in oatmeal

How to break the grazing habit?

I’m going to do another episode where I talk about the transition away from grazing if you’re stuck in the all day grazing pattern and don’t know how to get out of it. In the meantime, check out this post: All Day Toddler Snacking

Thank you for hanging out with me today, I am so proud of you and all the hard parenting work that you are doing for your little one. You are amazing and I hope you know that! 

Before you go, please leave a 5 star rating and review on the podcast if you’re on apple podcasts, because it helps other parents find the show. That’s a really helpful thing you can do for another mom or dad. Talk to you next time.

RESOURCES:

Toddler Meal and Snack Schedule

How to get your Toddler to Try New Foods – “safe foods”

Non-dairy yogurt picks

Recipe: 5-ingredient no bake nut butter bars

Healthy Toddler Snack Guide

Recipe: Pineapple Chicken Recipe 

All Day Toddler Snacking

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