There’s been a lot of news recently about the growing snack habits of kids – and most of it is negative. A recent study published in Health Affairs found that snacking in U.S. children has not only increased from 1989 to 2006, but accounts for more than 27% of total calories (up to 3 snacks per day).
Now this wouldn’t be so bad if kids were snacking on a variety of food. Instead, snacks mainly consist of salty snacks, candy, desserts and sweetened beverages.
So recent news stories have added snacking to the long list of childhood obesity culprits. But I would hate to see parents make unnecessary changes because all types of snacking have been lumped into one negative stereotype.
So let’s look into what type of snacking is good for kids (and not so good).
When my daughter starting eating finger foods before turning one, I remember the afternoon snack fests. All the moms in my playgroup would bring a variety of snack foods – goldfish, crackers, pretzels and animal crackers (me too). Many of the kids would carry the little snack container and feast away. I didn’t think much about it until my daughter started to refuse dinner.
Bad snacking almost always consists mainly of “snack” type foods. While I have no problem with kids eating these foods some of the time, they fail as good snacks for two good reasons. First, they do a poor job of filling little bellies up for long. And second, they don’t help fill kids’ nutrition gaps, which is an important role of snacks.
The bad type of snacking also follows the “grazing model” of eating. This is where children get snacks in a bowl where they can just pick at it as they wish. For older children the equivalent would be letting them go freely into the pantry and picking out snacks anytime they want. (For more on this, see 5 Reasons Moms Should Rethink Food Handouts.)
Both of these snack habits, eating mainly snack-type foods and grazing, fail to help children manage their hunger. They never really fill up, and never really get hungry, so they are more likely to get more, or less, food than they need.
So after making the realization with my daughter early on, I made some changes to her snack habits. Like her main meals, I began serving her snacks in her highchair. When we were on the go I tried my best to stop, sit somewhere and enjoy the food without distraction. Of course, at parties and play dates we would both graze, but that was more the exception than the rule.
So good snacking is the opposite of bad snacking. There is structure to it. That means eating at the table or some designated place. There is timing to it. Trying to get it right between meals so hunger is managed nicely. And there is nutrition to it. Make nutritious and tasty snacks that fill kids up.
In her books, Ellyn Satter calls snacks “mini-meals” which is how I’ve come to think of them. That means they consist of a couple of different food groups with a combination of protein, carbohydrates and fat. This might be whole wheat crackers and a cheese stick or apple slices with peanut butter or carrots with hummus or yogurt with almond slices. (For more on this, see Top Ten Nutritious Snack Combination for Kids.)
But other, less often times, it is goldfish, animal crackers or some snacky type of food. For example, once a week I plan my daughter’s midmorning or afternoon snack with a trip to the grocery store where she gets a free cookie (she calls it the “cookie store,” thanks Vons!).
And research suggests that more frequent eating occasions can be better for children. A recent review published in Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition reveals that infrequent meals and snacks (including skipping meals) is associated with excess weight in children.
How to break bad habits
A recent article in the New York Times discussed how snacking in school-aged children has gotten out of hand. With all the activities kids have these days, parents are equipped with snack foods that can be consumed by kids in a moment’s notice. Some parents quoted in the article say they aren’t sure how to stop bad habits like the afternoon trip to the vending machine.
I think it’s important to talk to kids about their snack habits and what you plan to do about them. Tell them you want to better plan their snacks so they are timed around the main meals. Tell them you want more nutritious eating but will be sure to still include their favorites.
But more than anything, let them know that you are in charge of what is served at meal time. They may not like it at first, but once they know you are serious they will accept it.
So what are your kids’ snacking habits? Having any challenges? Are snacks away from home a major problem?
Piernas C, Popkin BM. Trends in snacking amount U.S. children. Health Aff. 2010 Mar-Apr;29(3):398-404.
Koletzko B, Toschke AM. Meal patterns and frequencies: do they affect body weight in children and adolescents? Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. Feb;50(2):100-5.