Luke Voytas is a pediatrician and author in Portland, Oregon. His posts combine research and common sense to help parents be calm and confident in raising their kids.

Surviving the Snack Attack

Surviving the Snack Attack

Some of the most common things I talk about with parents every day are picky eaters and kids who just won’t eat during mealtimes. And often as I’m discussing that with a parent, their two year-old is ruthlessly probing the diaper bag and tearing through several hundred calories in the form of squeezy applesauce, squeezey kale-mango-quinoa, and goldfish. So it’s easy to see how dinner is going to go in a few hours.

I get it – it’s easy for me to preach about this stuff, but you’re just trying to get through that appointment without your kid eating all the exam paper or ripping his poopy diaper off in the room.

And that’s the problem with snacks right there. Our lives are busier than ever before and full of appointments, car trips, and transitions. Doing that with kids is hard, and snacks become a crutch we lean on pretty heavily. We use them to counter boredom, meltdowns, and fighting. We always have snacks ready to go and our kids know it. So they’re always thinking about them and whining about them.

What’s wrong with too much snacking?

Too many calories: Snacking has skyrocketed over the past 40 years, and it’s probably no coincidence that childhood obesity has followed an almost identical trajectory during that time. A 2010 study looking at snacking trends over the past 30 years found that snacking increased significantly from 1977 to 2006 in all ages from 2-18. (1) This was most pronounced in 2-6 year-olds, who went from 1.34 to 2.75 snacks per day. By 2006 they were also getting 491 calories per day from their snacks, a 58% increase over the 310 they averaged in 1977.

Ironically, perhaps the most intense snacking occurs after kids’ sporting events. If you’ve had kids in soccer or teeball, you know what I mean. Cupcakes get you the most props, followed closely by donuts, capri suns, and granola bars. Fruit or pretzels will get you some dirty looks.

Public Health researchers at the University of Minnesota actually studied this and found that 8 year-olds burn about 150 calories in a typical one-hour soccer game – and they then consume about 300-500 calories in the typical postgame snack!

Picky eaters: Snacks are insidious. The math is simple. Your kid needs a set number of calories per day(really not very many.) All those little snacks throughout the day add up and leave only a little space for calories from meals. That means she can afford to quite picky about how she gets those few calories at mealtime. When you limit snacks, however, she has to get them from her meals. Her body doesn’t have any other options.

Less balanced diets: We all try hard to give our kids healthy snacks (I don’t see many kids walking around with Little Debbie snack cakes, which were a staple when I was a kid), but they inevitably tend to be higher in carbs, simple sugars, and salt, and lower in healthy fats, protein, and iron than foods your kid eats during meals.

Less resiliency: Finally, I’ve written before about how resiliency has perhaps more to do with our kids’ success than any other trait. A big part of being resilient is learning how to handle being bored, upset, or even slightly hungry without the help of fruit snacks (even the ones that are made from real fruit juice!)

How can we counter the snacking menace?

Get snacks scheduled: Whether we’re talking about snacks or screen time, scheduling is the antidote to whining. Younger kids have smaller tummies and probably could benefit from two small snacks throughout the day, one during mid-morning and one in the afternoon. Older kids can go longer with eating and really only need a snack after school. Set a specific time and stick to it! And if she’s just starving 45 minutes after dinner and right before bed, I don’t think it’s too mean to suggest that she eat more for dinner the next night.

Be confident that your kid will adapt: You might say, “That’s all fine and well, but my son is always starving by 10:00. How am I going to deal with that until noon?” But what about that breakfast at 8? Did he leave most of his oatmeal or eggs and say that he was full? And if so, was that because he knows he’s going to get some applesauce and goldfish a few hours later?

When you decide how you want your child to snack, his body will always adjust to that policy to make sure it gets what it needs. In this case, it might take a few days, but he will eventually eat more of your healthy breakfast offerings when you cut the snacks.

Avoid distracted snacking: Try to limit snacking on the go, such as in the car or in the stroller (basically when it’s most useful.) At any age, we should pay attention when we eat. This also lets you control your child’s portion eats rather than letting him graze the entire time you are distracted at the grocery store, for example.

Snack smarter: We’ve talked about how snacks tend to be heavier in carbs, salt, and simple sugars than food consumed at meals. But it doesn’t have to be this way. Focus on non-processed foods and those that are higher in protein and even fat at the expense of carbs. Nacho cheese Doritos are amazing (and their new packaging suggests that their flavor may be even bolder and cheesier than ever before), but fruit, cheese sticks, Greek yogurt, and nuts are more ideal go-to snacks. I know pouches are huge right now, but they’re expensive and any veggies are often offset by too much sugar.

Combination snacks seem to be especially an especially powerful tool. A 2013 study found that kids who are allowed to snack until full on cheese and vegetables consume 72% fewer calories (and a whole lot more calcium and vitamins) than kids who snack until full on potato chips. (2)

Know this one exception: I can’t end without noting that there is one situation where none of these restrictions should apply – long airplane trips. You do what you gotta do to get through these. Layers of snacks, snacks that take a really long time to eat like cheerios or grapes cut into small pieces, level 5 meltdown snacks like yogurt melts or chocolate chips. Terrible things like gummy worms and Swedish fish. You survive and you get to that destination. Godspeed.

1. Piernas C, Popkin BM. Trends in snacking among U.S. children. Health Aff (Millwood). 2010;29(3):398-404.

2. Wansink, B. et al. Association of nutrient-dense snack combinations with calories and vegetable intake. Pediatrics. 2013; 131(1): 22-29.

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