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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Dinner Together Building Healthy Families One Meal at a Time.

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Fooducate Like Having a Dietician on Speed dial.

Hoboken Family Alliance A terrific resource for people living in the great city of Hoboken, NJ.

The Lunch Tray Everything you need to know about improving school lunches.

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Raise Healthy Eaters One of the best blogs (other than my own) for learning to raise healthy eaters.

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« Do Kids Need to Snack? | Main | Healthy Desserts for Kids »
Tuesday
May012012

What To Do About Snacks

It’s 15 minutes before dinner and your kids say they are hungry.  Do you give them a snack or make them wait?

What if it’s:

  • 30 minutes before dinner? 
  • 60 minutes before dinner?
  • 90 minutes before dinner?

Snack or wait?

I suspect most parents would feel comfortable making their kids wait—i.e. stay hungry—for 15 minutes.

But 30?

I have been thinking a lot about snacking lately because I’ve been reading Karen Le Billon’s new book French Kids Eat Everything.

The book is fabulous.  I’m jealous.  I wish I had written French Kids Eat Everything, and not just because I wish I had been able to spend a year living in France.  This book gets it right: When it comes to raising healthy eaters, if parents set up a structure that facilitates good eating habits kids will eat nutritious food.  

But let’s get back to snacking. Apparently the French don't do it (or at least they don't do much of it).  And so reading Le Billon’s book makes me wonder: Do we really need to snack as much as we do?

Of course I have questioned snacking before, and I've talked about the role of hunger in fostering good eating habits—read The Upside of Hunger—but Le Billon makes me question snacking more as a philosophy.

So I pose the question:  How much hunger are you willing to tolerate?

French Food Rule #7: Limit snacks, ideally one per day (two maximum), and not within one hour of meals.

According to Le Billon, French kids get an afternoon snack around 4:30 and that’s it. No mid-morning nosh. No after dinner delight.  Zilch. Nothing. Nada.

“If asked, many American parents would prefer to give something unhealthy to their kids rather than make them wait. If French children are hungry, on the other hand, they are simply promised that they’ll be able to eat well at the next meal. ” (p. 147)

I think this is true. Read Snacking and the Nutrition Zone Mentality and "Do No Harm" Snacking.

Snack or wait?

I know what you’re probably thinking: Kids need to snack.

Maybe this “truth,” that tiny tummies need frequent fill-ups, simply isn’t so.

If Le Billon is to be believed (and I can’t see why she shouldn’t be) French children—babies, toddlers, and school kids— survive just fine without a mid-morning snack.

Le Billon’s own children who, I think it’s reasonable to say, were snack-aholics when they first moved from Vancouver to France, actually made the transition to a non-snacking lifestyle without losing their ability to concentrate in school, play energetically and without their blood sugar levels tanking to dangerous levels.

When I was a child no one snacked mid-morning and we all survived just fine.  I don’t even remember being especially hungry.

In other words, snacking is a philosophy.  It's an approach to eating.  It's a lifestyle.  It's not a necessity.

The American approach to snacking teaches kids to avoid hunger.  In contrast, the French cultivate hunger.

Why? Hunger makes eating more pleasurable.  Try giving up snacks, like I recently did, and you'll see how much you start enjoying, I mean really enjoying, your meals.

But letting kids get hungry between meals pays off in another way: It makes kids less likely to be picky.   

I don't really expect parents to abandon snacking. But you should seriously curtail it.

  • Don't let your children snack on demand.
  • Create snack zones—times when snacks are available—that won't ruin meals.
  • If your kids seem especially hungry, move up the meal.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Source: Le Billon, K., 2012. French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters. New York: William Morrow.

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Reader Comments (15)

I am looking forward to reading this book. I recently read Bringing Up Bebe, though, and I want to put a little distance between two french parenting books. I like the idea of not letting kids snack willy-nilly, but when faced with a growth-spurting 2 year old...sometimes I cave. It doesn't help that I'm rounding the corner into my 3rd trimester and I can't very well say "I'm snacking, but you can't." Maybe I'll just be more adamant about enforcing the fruit/veggie options and less of the cracker options.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily

I have a lot of french friends and their kids are just as picky and difficult with eating as my own kid. I don't know where everyone is getting this "French people do it better" stuff that seems to be all over these days, but I can't see much difference with my own friends.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterSusan

I loved this post Dina! I am also in the midst of the fabulous book by Le Billon, in fact it is a hard on for me to put down. After reading the snack part in her book, I am really rethinking snacks for my wee ones. Thanks, as always for your great blog, as soon as there is a new post I devour it! Thanks for spreading the practical side of food and life.

May 1, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterLindsay

I've always be surprised by how much my friends' kids snack. I snack once a day, mid-afternoon, and it's generally yogurt. I let my kids do the same. However, that is pretty much it. Butt when we are with friends, their kids are always snacking. Hence, so are mine. If my kids do snack, it's fruit, veggies, or yogurt. I don't even own crackers. I don't know how the snacking families carry so much every where they go. (Of course, my friends are surprised by my kids getting dessert twice daily. To each his own.) I do, however, think that too much hunger should be avoided. WheI am really, really hungry, I make bad choices. Heathy foods are less appealing, and portion control becomes a problem. I'd rather snack, our let me kids snack, if it's more than an hour until dinner than ruin dinner in a different way. I'll just move my fruit from dinner to snack. The key footer nee is to not let the sum amount of food change, just the timing.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJoy

I am so grateful that my pediatrican warned me against snacks right before my first child started solid foods. She advised me to make sure he came to the table hungry, so he would eat his veggies. We never got into a snacking ritual, because it's so hard to make them healthy when kids are young and can't eat raw veggies. My sons get their daily cup of juice at 9:30 am and about 75% of the time, they get a healthy snack at 4;00 pm, frequently it's raisins and cheese. Whenever they start getting picky at meals, snacks are eliminated. This has worked well for us.

My observations of other families is that sometimes parents feed children when they really need rest or attention. I think bad habits often begin early when babies need a naps, but moms feed them instead. My life was restricted quite a bit when my children were young, because I carved my life out to fit their sleep schedule. When babies are on the go too much giving them food does quiet them down, but that's not what they neccesarily need.

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca CofiƱo

Thanks for sharing your stories everyone.

And Susan: I agree that there are probably a lot of picky eaters in France. In fact, one of the things I don't like about Le Billon's book is that there are a lot of sweeping generalizations.

Having said that, I do believe that they have a cultural emphasis in France that is different than the one we have here. And, even if they don't...I still think that reflecting on what we're teaching our kids about hunger by the way we give them snacks, is an important thing to do.

Best,

Dina

May 2, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

There have been studies on this subject and the magic number seems to be 5. That is, eating 5 times a day when it comes to maintaining a healthy weight in kids. I think kids under 4 need that midmorning "mini meal" to fill in nutrition gaps even if it is just fruit. Of course, I agree with Le Billon that structure is key and using real food is vital (at least most of the time). Here's the study http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20112151

May 2, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterMaryann

Maryann,

There might be evidence out there that eating more frequently helps kids maintain a healthy weight but the study you point to is certainly NOT one of them.

First of all, the literature review in this article shows that there has been inconsistent findings between the number of meals consumed and overweight and obesity. The strongest findings are cross sectional, and not longitudinal. And, although this might be because of small sample size, as the authors point out, there are other problems with this study, such as:

A) The authors don't differentiate between meals and snacks and this is important because they do say that the children in their study who consumed more meals also consumed fewer potato chips, pastries, chocolate bars, etc. So, more meals might be associated with reduced likelihood of overweight simply because when kids eat more frequent meals they eat better quality food.

B) The stronger associations for reducing the likelihood of overweight and obesity are eating within 30 minutes of getting up, and not eating after dinner. These can be accomplished without frequent meals.

C) The authors also confound talking about meal frequency and skipping meals. There is plenty of evidence that skipping meals increases the chances of overweight/obesity because skipping meals makes people more likely to eat higher calorie, worse quality food in larger quantities.

So, I think, at least in terms of this study, the jury is still out on the relationship between eating frequency and weight.

Thanks so much for point me to this article. It was interesting and fun to read.

Dina

May 3, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

But snacks here are the easy part! This is the time I get them to try new things the easiest and when we have less stress on manners and more silly and fun times than at dinner time. We pretty much only snack on veggies and fruits. My picky eater will try more veggies at snack time than he would ever tolerate at lunch or dinner.

Though I do fall into the snack to avoid hard times pit. Like the banana after swimming - it sets him up for a lousy dinner, but we might make it home without to many tears.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThy

Since my kids have snack time at school, I have no choice. But I have been giving them almost exclusively fruit and veggies since I read the book. Once they are older and dinner is later I'll be excited to try the after school chocolate on warm bread. New rules around trying food and eating politely at dinner have been laid down and it's going pretty well.

By the way, I have a giveaway for this book on my blog.

May 3, 2012 | Unregistered Commentercindy

My 2.5yr old just started daycare, and I've been supplying his own snacks as the daycare-provided menu is atrocious (juice + either goldfish, ritz, saltine, animal or graham crackers or trailmix for both morning and afternoon snack, every day... and don't get me started about the processed, bland, "kid-friendly" junk they call lunch!).
So I pack him a little tray with 1-2 fruits and a veggie for each snack time, and occasionally throw in some unsweetened cereal or a tiny portion of crackers. I've noticed that he doesn't usually eat much of it at school - I think he's too distracted by the other kids (although he'll usually eat a pretty good lunch). For the last two weeks, I've been letting him finish his snack trays on the half-hour walk home each evening (mainly to stop the "I'm hu-ungry" whine!).
But after reading this post the other day, I decided to not let him eat anything on the way home. The result.... he's devoured his dinner, veggies and all, for the last 2 nights in a row!
Dina - YOU'RE A GENIUS!!!
Here's hoping I can keep him to the same "minimal snack" schedule for the next 4 days that he's at home with me, and keep up the good dinner habits!! I have a feeling I'll have to work super-hard to keep him busy between snack/meal times so he doesn't whine for food!

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterVestifarian

Vestifarian: I suspect that the longer you practice "minimal snacking" the less you'll have to distract your "whining" kid. He'll be in the habit. But good luck and let me know how it goes.

Thy: It sounds like you're using snacks right - to introduce more fruits and veggies, and new foods. Keep it up!

Cindy: I love that you're implementing more of the French Rules! Can't wait to hear how it goes.

Thanks everyone for sharing.

Best,

Dina

May 4, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

I generally don't allow snacks while I'm preparing dinner (unless dinner is something like two hours out.) 60 minutes or less -- almost never. The exception is if she either didn't have a snack after school or had a "real food" snack (veggies, fruits, cheese, plain yogurt, nuts, etc.) and is hungry for something nutritionally comparable to what she'll get for dinner -- a glass of milk, a piece of fruit. Especially if she's been doing something strenuous during the afternoon.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervictoria

Victoria,

Sounds like you've found a good solution. But it's hard, isn't it, to deny your child food when she's hungry?

Dina

May 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

It can be! She's easier than a lot of her friends, though -- she eats most things most of the time, so I don't have to worry that she'll turn up her nose at dinner. Plus this has been the rule long enough that I don't get much pushback from her. When I remind her that I'm preparing dinner, so she's got to wait, she usually shrugs and goes off to do something else.

May 8, 2012 | Unregistered Commentervictoria

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