As I flipped through a photo album of my kids the other day, seeing picture upon picture of them snacking, I was reminded of the movie Ocean's Eleven. In virtually every scene that featured him, Rusty Ryan (played by Brad Pitt), was comically munching away on something. Parents of young children can no doubt relate; it feels like we're constantly feeding our kids.
We're not imagining things. U.S. kids are, in fact, snacking more than ever. A 2010 study published in Health Trends examined the snacking behaviors of more than 30,000 children ages 2 to 18 from 2003 to 2006, and compared these to behaviors analyzed in the late 1970s. The authors found that, on average, 27 percent of total calories came from snacks, and that kids today consume 113 more snack calories than they did 30 years ago. Among the youngest children, ages 2 to 6, snack calories were up 182 calories per day from what they were decades ago. The researchers also noted that, on average, kids today are snacking close to three times daily.
Most experts acknowledge that snacks have a necessary and appropriate place in kids' diets. But how much is too much? And what role should snacks play in a healthy diet for young children? Are snacks important bridges to mealtime for kids whose tummies are too small to meet their needs with three square meals per day? Or are they meal saboteurs, filling kids up so much that they have no room—or desire—for nutritious foods? In reality, all of the above may be true.
Here is a best-case scenario: Snacks don't look all that different from meals nutritionally, though they may be smaller portion-wise and more portable. Snacks are planned as thoughtfully as meals, and are used strategically to fill in nutritional gaps: a piece of string cheese to supply a serving of calcium-rich dairy, or carrot sticks with peanut butter to tick off a serving of veggies and some protein. When considered an essential part of a day's total diet, snacks help alleviate the pressure parents—and kids—feel around any one particular meal. If a child eats poorly at lunch, say, an equally nutritious mini-meal is only about two hours away. Mom knows that she's not over-feeding snacks because her child usually eats at least two—and occasionally even all three—of his regular meals quite well.
Here is a snacking scenario gone awry: A "picky eater" refuses to eat lunch, so Mom brings along his favorite snacks to the park—animal crackers, pretzels, juice, fruit gummies,"so at least he'll eat something." He grazes on these throughout the afternoon with gusto, and when dinner rolls around, the food refusal starts up again. Mom worries about his pickiness, coerces and cajoles him to eat his veggies, and kiddo digs in his heels. A fight ensues, but nerves are calmed once milk and cookies are produced as a bedtime snack. "At least the little guy won't go to bed hungry." Sound familiar?
Theoretically, snacks are an essential part of a toddler and preschooler's diet, and remain important throughout childhood. Constant eating throughout the day, however, is not snacking. It's grazing. And it prevents a child from ever feeling hungry enough to sit down to a proper meal and eat it well. Nutrient-dense snacks at well-timed intervals reinforce a parent's efforts to foster acceptance of a variety of foods. Empty-calorie snacks nibbled whenever a child demands them undermine these same efforts. Unfortunately, national data suggest that snacking scenario No. 2 may be the dominant one. And, according to the 2010 study on snacking, sweetened beverages and desserts are the leading sources of kids' snack calories, though the greatest increases since the 1970s have been from salty snacks, candy, and fruit juice.
As both a dietitian and a mom, I believe we've been sold a bill of goods about what's "snack food" and what's "meal food" in this country. If it comes in a crinkly bag or colorful box, it must be a snack. If it resembles a food found in nature, it must be a meal food (and kids will have to be duped into eating and liking it). Not only is this a false dichotomy, but it's incredibly limiting to parents who have three meals and one to two snacks to plan each day. One of the hardest things about feeding kids is resisting the natural inclination to pass our own food prejudices on to them. They don't know what's "supposed" to be snack and what's "supposed" to be a meal. They just know that they're hungry. If we respond by feeding them real food, we stand a very good chance at raising healthy eaters.
Who says whole-grain pumpkin pancakes, hard-boiled eggs, leftover meatballs, or tuna with crackers aren't snack food? And why can't peas, beans, or chickpeas be healthily snackified—or kale, olives, and seaweed for that matter? By reclaiming foods once confined to specific mealtimes, you can dramatically increase the variety in a child's diet and gain one to two more daily chances to acclimate her to an unfamiliar food. As a parent, I breathe so much easier at meals when one of my kids eats only the pasta or potatoes—or refuses to eat at all—when he's coming off of a nutritious snack that included two complementary food groups. And lest you think that only a dietitian's kids would accept such egregiously real food for a snack, think again. My kids have shared cold carrot pancakes, crunchy roasted chickpeas, kale chips, and savory spinach-ricotta mini muffins with dozens of other toddlers at the playground—including many whose parents swear to their child's extreme pickiness. Most come back for seconds.
No time to prepare healthy snacks on your own? Here are my favorite store-bought snacks when convenience trumps all.
• The Good Bean Roasted Chickpeas: A high protein, high-fiber, iron-rich snack that tastes sort of like Corn Nuts. Bonus: They look like actual chickpeas, which may help your child get comfortable with this nutritious staple when it appears at mealtime.
• Dry-roasted Edamame or Soy Nuts: Another crunchy protein and fiber powerhouse, these are a nutritious swap for empty-calorie salty snacks.
• Roasted Seaweed: These paper-thin sheets of vitamin and mineral-rich seaweed, roasted with olive oil and flavored with sesame or wasabi, have a crinkly and fun texture that kids adore. Since they're so low in calories, serve them with a more substantial sidekick, like cheese or plain yogurt.
• The Naked Edge Veggie-Go's. These "fruit leathers" are loaded with vitamins and are made without any added sugar or fruit juice concentrates. Vegetable and fruit purées are the only ingredients, and most flavors actually contain more veggies than fruit! Because they lack added sugar, they're also low in calories, so kids may need to eat them with something more substantial for energy.
• Freeze-Dried Fruit: The crunchy texture and crinkly bag will capture the heart and mind of your little chip addict, but most products contain nothing other than fruit. The texture may also be easier for young children to handle than chewier dried fruits.
• Mini Lara Bars: Dried fruit, nuts, and spices. That's all! Compare the ingredient list to your typical granola bar or kiddie snack bar; it's a fraction of the size.
• Mary's Gone Crackers Sticks and Twigs: These allergy-friendly, crunchy sticks are made from whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, millet and millet with flax, sesame, and chia seeds.
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Tamara Duker Freuman, MS, RD, CDN, is a NYC-based registered dietitian whose clinical practice specializes in digestive disorders, Celiac Disease, and food intolerances. Her personal blog, www.tamaraduker.com, focuses on healthy eating and gluten-free living.