It’s Time for a Snack!

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This is an article on kids and snacking that I wrote for Washington Parent magazine. Let me know your thoughts about kids and snacking, and next week I’ll post more comments.

I was discussing plans for an afternoon pre-schooler event with some neighborhood moms: crafts, games, singing. And inevitably someone asked, “What about the snack?”

If you’re the parent of a young child, you’ve probably noticed that just about every activity involving little kids seems to involve some period of time for eating, no matter what time of day it happens to be. Why, I’ve wondered, does every kiddie event have to include a serving of food? At what point do children outgrow their nutritional need for daily noshes, rendering ongoing snacking more of a habit? And perhaps most important, what implication does day-long eating have on common parental concerns, ranging from childhood obesity to Picky Eating?

Fascinated by this trend, I started researching the issue. What I learned in numerous interviews with leading pediatricians, dietitians, scientific researchers and others is detailed in my book My Two-Year-Old Eats Octopus: Raising Children Who Love to Eat Everything. (Bull Publishing) I discovered that a lot has changed in the word of childhood eating, and especially snacking, even in the last fifteen or so years.

For one thing, it’s not your imagination: There really are a lot more kiddie snack products on the market today than ever before, churned out at a relentless pace by a food processing industry eager to bank on the presumed need for parental “convenience” products. American food companies have introduced over 600 new children’s food products since 1994, half of them candies or chewing gum and another quarter other types of salty or sweet snacks.

What has also changed over the last quarter century is the number of structured activities for young children, most of which provide an opportunity for a snacking break. Kids go from one organized event to another, often starting as young as their daycare years. Adults who supervise these activities rely on a set snack time as an integral part of the program. In talking to some of these teachers and administrators, many acknowledged that often the kids aren’t particularly hungry or are asking for snacks. But there they are, anyway.

Should we as parents be concerned about all of this perpetual eating?

Perhaps, say experts like Barry Popkin, PhD, of the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, who in March published the first real research about American children’s snacking habits. Among all kids, ages 2 – 18, Popkin found that:

 Kids are consuming almost three snacks a day, accounting for 27% of their daily caloric intake. (That’s in addition to three standard meals a day.)
 Sweetened beverages and desserts remain the top snacking items, but salty snacks and candy are gaining ground.
 The prevalence of children-who-snack at least sometimes went up from 74% in the 1970’s, to 98% in 2006.
 Kids ages 2 – 6 have the highest number of snacks per day.
 Children take in 168 more calories per day as snacks than they did in 1978.
 Thirty years ago, children were eating more whole fruit as snacks. Now, they are drinking more fruit juice as a snack.

Popkin’s real concern? That children are actually losing the ability to discern hunger cues – to even know when they are hungry – because snack foods are available so often!

One problem we face is the lack of guidance and information from the medical and food communities on the need for children to snack. We are told that our newborn needs to eat every two hours, day and night – which is a lot, as any new mom can confirm. Then, just a few months later, that infant may drop a nighttime feeding or two, and be down to eight or so feedings a day. Gradually, as he starts on solids, he will begin to adopt an eating schedule more like everyone else’s in the family, perhaps with a pediatrician-recommended morning and afternoon snack. But at some point, these snacks become unnecessary, and perhaps even a deterrent to healthy eating at mealtime.

For Snack Parents at school or when preparing snacks for younger children at home, the best advice seems to be: Keep them healthful, which means keep them as natural and unprocessed as possible. “When your kids are snacking, avoid the typical ‘kiddie’ snack foods like Goldfish crackers, fruit roll-ups, and juice boxes, that are loaded with carbs and provide only a quick and empty calorie boost,” says Patricia Bannan, MS, RD, author of Eat Right When Time is Tight. “Just like adults, ideal snacks for kids include a mix of protein and fiber.”

And don’t forget that these more healthful snacks provide kids with something equally important: The opportunity to experience a range of tastes and flavors in their foods.

Making Snack Time a Healthful, Tasty Time

Here are some suggestions for kids’ snacks that are big on flavor and nutrition:

Whole Fruits — Move beyond popular children’s foods like apples, grapes and bananas. More unusual fruits like kiwi, papaya, pineapple chunks, mangoes, cherries and blackberries, will provide flavor and texture variety. Focus on local, seasonal fruits to ensure that you are getting top-quality taste-wise.

Cheese and Crackers — Nix the Ritz crackers and packaged string cheese in favor of a better-tasting and more wholesome snack. Serve small portions of quality parmesan, goat, mozzarella and other mild cheeses, along with whole wheat, sesame and other interesting crackers.

Yogurt – Compare the sugar content of most children’s yogurts to yogurts in the adult product category; you’ll see a big difference in the sweetness factor. Serve your kids Greek yogurt, topped with a spoonful of granola or dried fruit.

Crunchy Vegetables – Slice carrots, celery and bell peppers, along with radishes, zucchini and even broccoli and cauliflower. Emphasize the crunch factor as part of the fun of eating.

Go Nuts – Assuming there are no allergies, of course, tree nuts are among the healthiest and satiating snacks for both kids and adults. Try in-shell pistachios, which taste great and are fun to pop open.

Edamame – Steam and serve with small pinch of sea salt.

Hummus – Try pita roll-ups spread with hummus, bean sprouts and a few drops of olive oil.

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One Response to “It’s Time for a Snack!”

  1. Cheryl Says:

    i did tuscan melon for mine today. Yesterday it was the dried green bean chips. i like to switch it around from salty to sweet from day to day.

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