kids grumpy

Are your kids grumpy after school? This could be why…

As a parent, you’ve probably had the experience of being greeted by grumpy, irritable children at afternoon school pickup.  They’ve had a big day, they might be a little stressed or tired, and as their “safe place” you cop the worst of it in the car trip home.

But have you ever considered that there could be more at play than just tired kids?

A lot of mums know that their kids are hungry when they finish school, and we know that hunger can make us feel irritable and grumpy sometimes too.  So you probably get home and give your kids all kinds of snacks to perk them up a bit – and it works, for a little while.  The thing is, you might be giving your kids the wrong kinds of snacks to improve their mood and energy levels.

Let me explain…

If your kids are anything like most kids, they prefer carb-rich foods over high-protein foods.  This means things like cereals and toast for breakfast, sandwiches and biscuits for lunch, and maybe even some fruit or vegetables.  Whether the carbs are whole grains, sugary foods or fruit, their little bodies convert those carbohydrates into glucose for energy.  Which is great – we all know how much energy kids have!

After your kids eat, they’ll get a boost of glucose through their bodies, which they can use as energy when they’re playing and jumping and running around the schoolyard.  Then blood sugar levels return to normal once it’s all been used up.

But what happens if your children aren’t eating all of their lunch?  They don’t get enough glucose in their system to play and jump and run, which means their bodies are running on empty trying to find the energy to do all the things they want to do.  And that means their blood sugar levels drop really low.  Unless your child is diabetic, low blood sugar isn’t normally a problem, because the hunger response will encourage eating to restore blood sugar levels to normal.  But in a class environment, your child might not have another chance to eat until a few hours later, meaning their blood sugar levels stay lower than ideal.

Have you heard of the term “hangry”? It’s like a cross between hungry and angry, and it’s real! It’s what happens when blood sugar levels are too low for too long, and that might be what your kids are experiencing when they throw a  tantrum in the back seat of your car at school pickup.  Low blood sugar also causes big drops in energy and can change the way we cope with emotions, making it harder to act rationally.  The good news is, there’s a few simple things you can do to help prevent low blood sugar levels and after-school-meltdowns.


Protein helps keep blood sugar levels stable, so ensure their lunchbox has protein-rich options that your children like and are easy to eat.  Cheese sticks, hummus, mini meatballs, quiches, savoury muffins, chia puddings, bliss balls made with seeds instead of nuts.  (Most schools have a nut-free policy).  Try to get protein in at breakfast time too, with a nutty muesli instead of cornflakes or avocado on toast rather than jam.  You can also get some protein into their sandwiches – try chicken and salad, or leg ham and cheese.  All that protein throughout their day will help keep their blood sugar levels regulated, which means they’re way less likely to dip into the low-blood-sugar, “hangry” zone.  And that means you don’t have to put up with grumpy kids after school!

Of course, encouraging them to eat their lunch and snacks is part of the battle, so making the food easy to eat and choosing foods they love will help.

After school snacks

When the kids reach for snacks after school, their bodies need protein to help keep blood sugar stable, as well as carbohydrates for energy to get them through till dinner.  Carbohydrate and protein snacks include things like:

  • Bliss balls with nuts and date
  • Carrot sticks and hummus
  • Celery and cream cheese
  • Biscuits and dip or cheese
  • Chia pudding with yoghurt and/or fruit
  • Yoghurt with nutty granola
  • A protein-rich fruit smoothie
  • Homemade sushi, with a protein filling
  • Tinned tuna on rice cakes

So yes, your kids are grumpy and tired and hungry when you pick them up from school sometimes – but it’s not just hunger.  It’s usually low blood sugar levels.  And when you start to implement some of the simple strategies above, you’ll find those after-school-meltdowns become less and less frequent (thank goodness!)

About the author

Dannielle Illingworth

Dannielle Illingworth is a naturopath, kinesiologist and author of “Quit Stressing About Food!: Practical steps to simplify healthy eating for the whole family’. Through 1:1 coaching and group programs, Danni helps busy mums save time, money and stress around healthy eating.

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