It’s getting kids to eat what parents serve that causes so many problems.

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DINA ROSE, PhD is a sociologist, parent educator and feeding expert empowering parents to raise kids who eat right.
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Tuesday
Sep212010

Polly Want a Cracker?

School started in earnest last week and while most people are focused on the quality of food in the cafeteria, I’m obsessed with snacks.

Since when do all kids, even 9 year olds, need a daily morning snack? And when did it become standard for that snack to be a fistful of crackers?  And while I’m at it, when did crackers become healthy?

I’ll get to the nutrition of crackers in a minute (but be warned, it’s not pretty).  First, though, I want to point out that getting kids into the habit of eating a vacuous, nutritionally insipid mid-morning snack isn’t the best idea.  If they must snack, can we at least use the opportunity to get them in the habit of eating food that’s actually healthy?

Crackers are alright on occasion, but daily cracker-snacking is best left to the birds.  Here's why:

  1. Kids don't need more grains; they need more whole grains (and most crackers fail in this department).
  2. Kids don't need more exposure to grain products.  They already eat them joyfully, and frequently to the exclusion of other types of foods. Instead kids need more exposure to fruits and vegetables.
  3. Contrary to popular belief, snacking doesn't just redistribute calories over the course of the day. It adds calories to the daily grand total.
  4. The body can scarcely tell the difference between white flour and white sugar. Seen this way, loading kids up on crackers at school doesn't make sense.

I know I’m sounding a bit like a crazy mama at the moment.  But really, crackers—especially crackers used as chips, not as platforms for real food, i.e. cheese, hummus, or something yummy like a tomato and zucchini compote—aren’t a positive addition to our kids’ culinary day.  They teach our kids that snacks are crunchy, salty things... like chips.

Yes, I know crackers are baked, and that makes them “healthier” than potato chips, but being better than a chip doesn’t de facto make something healthy. (But even if it did, isn’t that setting the bar a tad low?)  Read The Potato Chip Challenge: How We Decide What Snacks to Give Our Kids.

In terms of habits, kids would be better off eating potato chips once or twice a week than eating crackers every day. At least we tell them chips are junk.

Now that I’ve vented, let’s move on to the nutrition.

Most crackers are made from refined flour, even when they tout whole grains.

Crackers made from whole wheat, such as Triscuit Crackers, deliver 2-3 grams of fiber per serving.  Be suspicious of crackers with less.

  • Cheez-It Crackers (a favorite in my daughter’s 4th grade class): Each serving delivers less than 1g of fiber, a sign they're made from refined flour. 
  • Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers: The box says each serving provides 5g of whole grains, but each serving delivers only 1g of fiber. Why? Because even Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers are made primarily from refined flour.  (Check out the ingredients; you'll see what I mean.)

FYI: You can get 1g of fiber from a serving of Lay's Classic Potato Chips, Chips Ahoy! cookies, or a McDonald’s Hot Caramel Sundae. One gram of fiber is no big deal.

Refining sucks the life out of whole grains.

Look at everything that gets lost when whole grains are refined.  

 

FYI: The only reason refined flour approaches whole flour on any nutrient is because refined flour is enriched.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

See more on whole vs. refined from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

 

Crackers are an empty snack... unless you count sodium and fat as attributes.

  • One serving of Original Cheez-It Crackers has 310mg of sodium and 9g of fat. 
  • One serving of the Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers has 250mg of sodium and 8g of fat.  
  • In comparison, one serving of Triscuit Crackers Original has 180mg of sodium and 4.5g of fat.

FYI: According to the Harvard School of Public Health, adults should limit their sodium intake to 1500mg per day. (Young children should have less.) I'm not sure allocating so much of your daily allotment to crackers is wise shopping.

It takes a lot of crackers to get the goods.

Your child would have to inhale 27 Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers in order to benefit from the 1g of fiber or 10 Triscuits to take in 3g of fiber. That's a whole lot of crackers.

Which translates into plenty of calories.

Maybe this helps explain why 2-6 year olds now consume 182 more calories per day than they used to.

  • One serving of Cheez-It Crackers has 180 calories.
  • One serving of Whole Grain Cheez-It Crackers has 150 calories.
  • One serving of Triscuit Crackers has 120 calories.

(FYI: A small 2-ounce box of Goldfish Crackers = 280 calories.) Read Goldfish vs. Bunnies.  

Don't think I'm down on Cheez-It Crackers.  I like them as an occassional treat.  What gets me going, though, is using them—and their crunchy brethren—as healthy, daily delights.

NuVal, the nutritional scoring system that doles out values between 1 and 100 (with 100 representing top nutrition) gives most crackers a mediocre score.

Although the top crackers receive scores in the 80s, the median (average) score for the category of crackers is in the 20s. That's where Cheez-It Crackers fall (NuVal score=23).  

Many of our kids' favorites, however are at the bottom of the nutritional barrel. Let's face it, our kids are less likely to sink their teeth into Ryvita Rye & Oat Bran Whole Grain Rye Crispbread crackers (NuVal score=87) than they are to chow down a couple of Ritz Bits Cheese Cracker Sandwiches (NuVal score=7

FYI: Bananas score 91 and blueberries rate a cool 100.

Other traditional snack foods are also nutritional time bombs.  Read The Snacking Minefield , Think Snack TIME Not Snack FOOD, and Snacking and the Nutrition Zone Mentality.

For all the teachers who want quick, easy and portable snacks...

I say ask parents to wash some apples, bring in some bananas, or to cough up some carrots at least as often as they crate in the crackers.   It'll nourish our kids and teach them the right habits.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

==============================================

Sources: All websites accessed 9/20/10; Bittman, M., 2009. Food Matters: a Guide to Conscious Eating. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster. p. 88; Piernas, C. and B. M. Popkin. 2010. “Trends in Snacking Among U.S. Children.” Health Affairs 29(3): 398-404.

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Reader Comments (17)

As usual, you have given an incredibly wise insight, this time into snacking and crackers. Teaching our kids how to eat is so important, but so easy to lose track of during a busy week of fixing lunch and snack. When *did* snack become part of the school day? Crackers on their own aren't filling (low fiber) and the salt and fat content makes it hard for kids to stop and realize they are full. Goldfish kill me and are one of the things I've purged from my home. Somehow Pepperidge Farm has convinced the vast majority of parents that Goldfish are a wholesome snack. Better to think of a snack as a mini meal and pass on a better food culture to our kids. It's harder than grabbing a snack-size bag of crackers, but so many times in parenting the right thing isn't the easy thing, although I often wish it was.

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercat delett

I am an avid follower of your blog and love reading it. However, I have a small issue with this post, adding "(average)" after the word median is simply incorrect. I have to assume you know this and were trying to simplifying for a general audience, but the error isn't sitting well (with me at least) since this blog is supposed to be backed in science.

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterBecky

Thanks for the healhty snack pep talk. My second grader comes home telling me everyone else in her class gets cookies and doritios for snack. And this morning her teacher told me that a lot of the kids have those little 100 calorie snack baggies (which she saw as a positive thing [eye roll]). She said they try to plug healthy snacks, but parents give what is convenient. I was under the spell of Goldfish crackers not too long ago. We used to keep them in the pantry all the time.

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterCindy

You do not sound like a crazy mama! You gave the facts and the chart! Right on and cheers to you!!! - Hil

September 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHil

Thanks everyone for all the kind comments. As you can see, crackers as snacks really got to me this week!

Becky: I'm sorry that adding (average) after the word median bothered you. As you probably know, when distributions are skewed, the median is better than the mean, and it's still frequently called an average. And you're right, identifying it that way ensured that everyone would understand what I was saying.

Dina

September 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Hi, Dina. I love and agree with what you wrote about white flour crackers. What I disagree with, however, is the idea that a mid-morning snack is not important. A healthy mid-morning snack is important not only for children, but for everyone! It is the key to maintaining good blood sugar levels and is far better than waiting for up to 5 hours between breakfast (7:30am) and lunch (12:30pm). For example, I often send my daughter to 2nd grade with a snack of 7 Reduced Fat Triscuits (3g fiber and 120 calories for 7 crackers) and 1 reduced fat cheese stick (8g protein and 70 calories). This is a healthy and blood-sugar-friendly combination of whole grains and protein. Without it, blood sugar levels drop (even in healthy people), making it harder for kids to concentrate. From a scientific/nutritional perspective, I'm surprised at your disdain for mid-morning snacks.

September 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHelen

Helen,

I agree that in my passion I misspoke, though slightly. I agree that it can be hard for kids to make it for 5 hours from breakfast until lunch, and I agree that blood sugar matters. Two things concern me and I would love to hear your opinion. 1) Lots of kids in school eat lunch as early as 11 or 11:30. Do you think they still need a snack? 2) Much of the trend in snacking is just that, a trend. Years ago (I know, I'm dating myself), people simply didn't snack between meals and, presumably, we didn't have a nation with problematic/dropping blood sugar levels.

I would love to see schools switch from serving/forcing milk at lunch to providing it at snack. It wouldn't just get our kids from breakfast to lunch, but without the competing lunch foods, I'm sure more kids would drink it.

Dina

September 24, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I back you up on the entire post. And average medium sitswell with me. I guess I'm not scientific enough to be bothered by it.

September 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAmy (Super Healthy Kids)

Ah...this has been the hardest thing for us to give up! Snacks are especially difficult at our school because they a) have to be peanut free; b) not "messy" like any wet fruits, veggies, yogurt, etc. and c) healthy. BTW, those things can go to the lunchroom but not for snack in the classroom. I'll admit, I reach for the crackers more often than I'd like because they ARE easy and fit at least the first two criteria. Plus my kids are to the age now where they don't want to be the "weird" kids bringing the healthy snacks all the time. My kids were begging me, I'm mean BEGGING me last week to please buy some chiips and put them in their lunch sometime because all their friends have them. It is tough to be a parent who wants to feed our kids healthier choices!

September 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeal Plan Mom (Brenda)

Brenda,

I know about the begging. I would say, make a deal with your kids about how many times per week they can have the goods they want (say once or twice) and then let them choose which days they have it. Then, make sure portion size is appropriate and you'll have a win-win situation.

BTW, we eat crackers in our house too. In fact, I'm eating one now.

Dina

September 26, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Dina! You'd be so proud of me. My daughter is doing cheerleading this year and we take turns brining "snack" to the football games for them to eat during the third quarter. They do cheer pretty continuously, so they certainly need water and it's not crazy to think they might need a snack. But oh, the snacks! Oreos, chewy granola bars (how do they keep them soft???), goldfish crackers, and of course -- juice boxes.

Not only was I concerned for my own child, but we have two girls on the squad whose mothers are concerned about their eating habits (and its effect on their weight), and we also have a girl on the squad with Juvenile diabetes. So I knew I had at least a few allies in the quest for healthier snacks.

I decided to take a risk. I signed up to bring snack in week 4. I showed up with a cooler filled with...bottled waters, bags of apple slices, and fresh bananas. I was nervous. Parents (not from the team) who heard what I was doing thought the kids would hate me. I was afraid they were right.

After halftime, I pulled my cooler up onto the track and opened it up. I yelled out what I had and girls lined up. Here's what I heard:
"Can I have apples AND a banana?"
"Someone pass me a water!"
"Ooh, do you have any more green apple slices?"
"I love bananas."
"Can I have another banana?"
"Can I have another bag of apples?"

Not one complaint. Not one protest. The girls were enthusiastic and crowding around for their snack. They were happy and asking for seconds. I didn't preach. I just quietly passed out what they asked for, opening waters, bananas, and bags of apples as I went. But I was quietly SO proud of these little 7-9 year old girls for their role in my experiment. The coach and other parents were happy to eat the leftovers too!

Next week, we might be back to juice and oreos, but at least the girls showed the parents that if you offer them a healthy snack, they're just as happy to eat it as they are when you offer them something unhealthy. That's one point for healthier eating.

September 28, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterLiz

Liz,

All I can say is BRAVO!!! What a world we live in - bringing apples and bananas is thought of as a risk. I'm glad you and the girls proved the point... fruit sells!

Congratulations.

Dina

September 29, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I am actually all about the morning snack for my kid, but I agree with you about crackers (even though I am often guilty of turning to crackers as a snack for my kids)! I can do a lot of valid complaining about my son's school lunch, but one of the things they do right is morning snack. The school provides fresh fruit (or sometimes vegetables) every morning for snack. A parent can still send a snack in with their child, but it's wonderfully surprising how many of the kids dive into the fruit box. It's turned my son on to a lot of fruits he had previously shunned, and I think that it sends a great message to the kids.

October 2, 2010 | Unregistered Commentercathy

My daughter's 8-9 soccer team also does snacks after the game and for our week we made frilly toothpick kababs. My daughter had a blast making them. Some had strawberries and grapes and the other half had a slice of deli turkey, a cherry tomato, a basil leaf and a square of white cheddar. My husband asked if I was hosting a cocktail party, but the girls all loved them and most took one of each. I hope the trend continues with the next game!

October 4, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterTracey

Cathy: You are soooo lucky that your son's school does morning snack so well. Fruits and Vegetables!!!! It turns out the only way our kids are ever going to eat these items is if we provide them. It also proves the point that kids will eat fruits and vegetables more readily than we think, especially if we start with them at an early age. But it's not just a case of what they're willing to eat at first, because we train their taste buds by giving them the foods that we do. Providing fruits and vegetables trains kids to like and eat them.

Tracey: You've proved my point too. I am so glad to hear of your snack kebabs. I wish I could channel some of your ingenuity to those who need a little snack inspiration.

Dina

October 4, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I followed a link from A Life Less Sweet. As a pediatric-whole-foods-nutritionist agree with your cracker philosophy! here's my take on snacks: http://www.beyondprenatals.com/2010/07/what-does-nutritionist-soccer-mom-bring.html

But now...what to do about schools that love snacks?

October 14, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDebra @ BeyondPrenatals

Debra,

Love your take on crackers!

If we moved milk from lunch to snack time we would solve the whole milk "problem." More kids would drink it because they would be hungry/thirsty and there would be no "better" foods competing for their attention. Since the government already supplies milk, it would also be a no cost solution to the snack "problem."

Dina

October 22, 2010 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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