I see them everywhere. Toddlers running on the playground with sticky granola bars in their hands. Preschoolers riding their Razors with one hand in a bag of Goldfish crackers. Children whose smallest peep results in a parent reaching for a loaded Snack-Trap.
Over-snacking, or consuming food outside of normal meal times regardless of energy need, can lead to multiple problems – and I am not just referring to obesity. Yes, too many snacks can lead to weight gain. And for some families, this weight gain is a catalyst to change a family’s eating habits.
But, obesity is not the only consequence of too many snacks. Unfortunately, parents get false reassurance that if their child is of normal weight, then they are not snacking too much. Until other problems emerge…..
Some over-snackers are underweight. These kids lose their appetite for healthy whole-food choices at meal times because their calorie needs have already been met for the day through snack foods. After awhile, their consumption of typically high-fat, high-carb snack foods replaces a normal, balanced diet of nutritive foods. At the end of the day, they don’t eat enough quality calories for appropriate growth.
Meanwhile, the over-snacked begin to crave high-carb, high-fat items in order to feel “full.” Proteins, fiber, and dairy have a tendency to fall to the wayside in a child’s diet. The formative, foundational years to develop a balanced palate are lost to excessive crackers, fruit, and granola bars. Or, even worse, fall to pouches of glorified baby food.
The result? Picky-eaters and meal-refusers.
Over-snackers can also become manipulative. An over-snacked child’s behavior will change depending on if, when, and what snack food is offered. The slippery slope of positively reinforcing whining and interruption begins as parents scramble to “just keep him quiet” with food. Or, snacks begin to be associated with praise. For example, “You did such a great job, let’s go get a treat.” After awhile, too many snacks for the wrong reasons.
In my opinion, snacking has become more cultural norm and popular expectation rather than nutritional need. For long-term health, our children need to learn how to eat for nutritive gain – learning to eat when hungry is a life-skill. Over-snacked kids lose the ability to listen to their body’s cues of hunger and fullness.
So, if a child is eating the required amount of calories for normal growth and development in 3 squares a day, is all this snacking really necessary?
How do we know if our children are getting too many snacks? And, what can we do to discourage over-snacking?
- Offer water first. Small kids can confuse the feeling of thirst for hunger. In addition, kids are generally under-hydrated. Water should be a first go-to. And, if your child seems satisfied after a quick drink, skip the snack.
- Out of sight, out of mind. Keeping food in your bag, purse, glove box, and pockets is part of the over-snacking recipe. With the exception of long excursions, food should be kept in the kitchen cupboard. In this way, snacking becomes more inconvenient. And, hopefully, more infrequent.
- Don’t force a snacking schedule, but don’t snack on demand. Be mindful of a snacking balance. Have snacks at the ready, but don’t offer them until your child demonstrates hunger. If your child demonstrates hunger cues, and it is an appropriate time in the day, then enjoy the snack.
- Sit to snack. A child who is hungry will sit (OK, slow down?) to eat. They will stop playing, go to the table, and eat a snack. If your child is not willing to stop play, they are likely not really hungry. Save the snack for later, or skip it. An exception to the sit to snack rule? The carseat! Try to eliminate 4-wheeled eating.
- Keep a snack, a snack. Despite what Taco Bell would like us to believe, a snack should not be a 4th meal. Leave some calorie craving for actual meal times. In general, snacks should be 100-200 calories.
- Snacks are nutrition, not a discipline tool. I fully understand that food will keep a toddler/pre-schooler quiet and entertained. Save those here-is-a-snack-I’m-trying-to-do-something moments to the minimum. Help your children learn self-entertainment and quiet play, independent of food.
Hopefully these tips will help your family find the right snacking balance, and not fall into the trap of over-snacking. For the long-term health of our children and families, learning how to successfully eat meals and snacks is a lesson we all should prioritize.
*The tips and suggestions in this post reflect general trends I have observed in our KC community. If your child has health or medical conditions where frequent eating is necessary, clearly these do not apply. Please ask your health care provider about your family’s eating habits if you are concerned, or if you have more questions.