“It’s Time for a Snack!”

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I have been commiserating with other mothers of toddlers about the frequency of which our kids are given snacks when they are at gatherings like daycare, playgroups, nursery schools and the like. Find an organized toddler group, and I guarantee you will find “snack time” somewhere on the agenda. It’s built into our thinking that children this age must have a morning snack, and often one in the afternoon as well. (It’s also a bit of downtime in the day that many caregivers look forward to!) I bet I’m not the only mother who has wondered if my child’s appetite for his lunch and dinner items – the foods that I actually want him to eat – is diminished because he just had a snack an hour or two before mealtime.

A just released “Trends in Snacking Among U.S. Children” report found that kids now get 27% of their calories each day from snacks, and that three snacks a day – in addition to three meals a day — is the new norm for children. Food marketers are right there in the game with you, churning out an endless supply of new processed snack foods to meet this demand.

So why are we all doing this, specifically with young children? My theory is that it’s hard to draw the line between babies and their need to nurse and then eat several times throughout the day, and toddlers who are ready to go to a more structured three-meal-a-day pattern of eating. There is very little guidance on what to look for from nutrition experts. I wrote in my book, “Newborns start out needing to eat every two or three hours, which is a lot of feedings, as any new mom can tell you. Months down the line, the number of feedings drops some, and babies may eat slightly more at each feeding session. By early toddlerhood, most kids are on a regular three-meal-a-day, plus a snack or two, schedule.

“But watch Toddler grow; at the age of three or four, she probably doesn’t need two snacks a day at all. By now, however, it’s become a habit that’s hard to break. Throw in the fact that this is the age that many children start to become involved in structured activities, where “everyone else” believes that a morning and/or afternoon snack is mandatory, and you have the perfect scenario for endless snacking.”

I’d love to hear other mother’s thoughts on this. And in a future blog entry, I’ll talk about how I have at least tried to address this issue in my own kids’ play groups.

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7 Responses to ““It’s Time for a Snack!””

  1. Colleen Pierre Says:

    It’s a long time between meals for a kid who eats breakfast at 6am, lunch at noon, and dinner at 6 pm. Little kids need high octane fuel all day long. So try changing “snacks” to “mini meals” and keep the focus on healthy choices.

  2. Mindy Says:

    Part of the problem is that we live in a very snack-centric society, both kids and adults. Also, as with TV/video/computer games, giving a child a snack is a no-brainer way to keep him or her occupied. I think it’s important to break the constant snacking habit and transition a child into just one or maybe two snacks a day. Also, help kids learn to eat when they truly are hungry rather than out of habit.

  3. Genevieve Says:

    It seems to me like a big part of the problem lies in the selection of snacks. I have nothing against goldfish crackers (I actually think they’re really tasty) but I’ve noticed that many places use them as the default snack choice.

    When I was growing up, my mom’s idea of a snack was either an apple or a smaller portion of whatever we were eating at meal time. This worked pretty well, because if I were actually hungry between meals, I would accept the apple. If not, I never wanted to eat an apple out of boredom. And, if I ruined my appetite with an apple, Oh well! I was probably better off anyway.

    I try to do this with my own kids – offer something equally (if not more) nutritious as the meal they will be getting later. However, we do sometimes fall into the goldfish/graham cracker/raisin trap, partly because they’re so portable and easy!

  4. Mary Elisa Says:

    I must admit that we have fallen into the snack trap. A light snack is the first “activity” my school age child does when she gets home before she begins her homework. I often use snacks to get through a Target or grocery outing with my younger children, 3 & 4 years old. Snacks plus juice . . .I’ve got a long way to go!

  5. Nancy Says:

    Dawn, that’s a good point. But remember that the weight loss programs for adults recommend that you eat six small meals a day, using the word “meals” to imply that they should be nutritionally balanced. That’s different than 3 meals a day, plus three snacks, which is what many kids are doing. “Snacks” in this case means salty snacks, candy, sweetened beverages and desserts, according to this new study.

  6. Dawn Darby Says:

    Have you noticed that many adult weight-loss program encourage many small meals (snacks) throughout the day (many small v. fewer large meals) to keep metabolism up and to prevent overeating when you do sit down to eat…maybe toddlers have got it figured out!

  7. Antonia Malchik Says:

    I really do wonder if it’s due to caregivers’ need for a break. It never occurred to me to give my son snacks, but when on occasion I’ve been at his day care in midmorning, I’ve noticed that sitting around having a snack gives the caregivers a bit of time to breathe and relax, and the kids a little wind-down time, too.

    My sister’s youngest goes to a very innovative toddler center in Santa Cruz, CA, where the kids are fed freshly cooked organic meals and spend most of the day outside. Rather than snack time, they take little breaks to sit around the table and have … a cup of water. They take a breather, as do the caregivers. Same effect for everyone as snacktime.

    Actually, since including my son in our dinnertime, I have started giving him an afternoon snack. It’s a long stretch from a noon-ish lunch to a 6-ish dinner, but a few cubes of sharp cheddar at around 3 tides him over.

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