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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« Helping Kids Who Overeat | Main | What To Do About Snacks »
Friday
May042012

Do Kids Need to Snack?

Do kids need to snack?

That’s the question I raised in my last post.  I just finished reading Karen Le Billon’s book French Kids Eat Everything and I was responding to her point that French kids don’t snack as much as American kids do. According to Le Billon, French children (even very young ones) snack only once a day, sometime in the afternoon.

In contrast, American average nearly 3 snacks per day.  Some kids snack more frequently.

As a very recently reformed snacker, I’m conflicted on the pros and cons of eating between meals. 

I gave up snacking only a week or so ago (and today has already been a bust). Le Billon's got me thinking.

No matter you think about snacking, though, the reality is this: Half (or more) of our kids’ daily eating opportunities, and more than ¼ of their daily calories, come from snacks. It matters what we teach them.

As Le Billon points out, and I agree, the jury is still out on the number of times people need to eat during the day.

There’s plenty of research that shows that eating frequently throughout the day reduces your chances of becoming overweight.  Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of research that counters this too.

And, there are perplexing problems associated with this research.  For instance, it's not so clear that eating more frequently throughout the day provides a measure of protection against becoming overweight. 

Many overweight people skip meals in order to reduce their calorie consumption.  Thus, some researchers speculate that it might not be that meal frequency predicts obesity, rather weight status might predict how often people eat. 

Despite the persistent belief that snacking is a healthy habit, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

The more our kids snack, the worse they eat. 

  • Today’s children typically take in 168 more calories from snacks than they did in 1977.  (Does that mean kids are hungrier—168 calories hungrier—at snack time than they used to be?)
  • Contrary to popular wisdom, kids don’t compensate for snacking by eating smaller meals.  Kids 2-6 years old have added 182 calories per day to their diet since 1977, with no corresponding increase in physical activity.
  • Most snack calories come from desserts and sweetened beverages, but salty snacks – i.e. potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels -- and candy are the fastest growing category of snack consumption.

Read The Snack Attack, Snacks: The Gifts That Keep on Giving and Snacking and The Nutrition Mentality.

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t seem to have a policy on the number of snacks kids should consume during the day.

The AAP might have a policy, but I can't find one.  (If anyone out there knows of one, please pass it on.)

However, I did find this recommendation:

"Limit snacking during sedentary behavior or in response to boredom and particularly restrict use of sweet/sweetened particularly restrict use of sweet/sweetened beverages as snacks (eg, juice, soda, sports drinks)”

Read the whole report Dietary Recommendations for Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners

Regardless of what you decide to do about snacks I think there are some things you should consider.

1) Kids should not snack on demand.  Instead, set a time for snacks and (basically) stick with it.

  • Your kids will appreciate their meals more (they’ll eat a better and more varied diet).
  • You’ll be teaching your kids self-control.  Read Marshmallows Make You Smart.
  • You’ll be able to plan what you serve for snacks because you won’t be caught off-guard, forced to buy whatever snacking delight happens to be available.

2) Make sure snacks “borrow” calories from meals, rather than increase the bottom line. This is easier said than done. Read The Snacking Minefield.

3) Double check that you really do dole out snacks in response to hunger and not because you want to distract, entertain, placate or keep your kids quiet. 

4) Consider eliminating snacking on the go.  I'm not sure this is practical for Americans, but according to Le Billon, French kids only snack at home. This seems sane to me.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~

Sources:

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.

Koletzko, B. and A. M. Toschke. 2010. “Meal Patterns and Frequencies: Do They Affect Body Weight in Children and Adolescents?” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 50: 100-05.

Newby, P. K. 2007. “Are Dietary Intakes and Eating Behaviors Related to Childhood Obesity? A Comprehensive Review of the Evidence.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35 (1): 35-60.

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Reader Comments (11)

Dina: I love your blog and find it is the wisdom that is missing in this "information" society that we currently live in. I think the pros and cons of snacking should be weighed with the word appropriate. It is appropriate to snack when you are really hungry and lunch is still 2 hours away and the food you are eating is stuff you would normally eat anyway. On the other hand, it is inappropriate to snack when you aren't hungry, when you've just eaten or when lunch is only a few minutes away or because you just walked into the coffee room at work and found a half finished black forest cake calling you. We keep talking about WHAT people eat. We need to change the conversation, as you have, on how we eat. It is about being internally focused, rather than externally.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterAnnette Anderwald

Thanks for this interesting discussion. One thing that helps at our house for 4 and 6 year olds (and their mama!) is that if wee have a snack it is a vegetable plus a glass of water. Mini cucumber, a carrot, sliced peppers, etc.

This never seems to ruin the appetite for the meal to come, and then the meal vegetable is almost a "bonus" and they are more willing to experiment.

May 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterNicole

Annette: I love the word appropriate. You're so right. And thanks for the kind words about the blog.

Nicole: Sounds like you've figured out a good solution. I agree that if your kids must snack before a meal, make it a vegetable.

Thanks for sharing your stories/thoughts.

Best,

Dina

May 7, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Love this, I have basically stopped offering snacks at all as I find it makes my kids eat way less at meal times. Usually when they ask for a snack the next meal is less than 1 hour away anyway so I just ask them to wait.

May 7, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterEmily Weaver Brown

Emily,

Thanks for sharing your story. I'm trying to move in the no-snack direction too (both for me and for my daughter). Glad to know it's possible.

Best,

Dina

May 9, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Dina, wow. I just discovered you, and your site (by way of the Free Range Parenting site)!

I love this post, here (Do Kids Need to Snack?). Along with many other posts of yours that I have been reading this morning.

This idea you included (above) is particularly interesting to me: "Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits". Yes!

I also liked what Annette said, in her comment above, regarding making the distinction between choices that are appropriate vs. inappropriate. And being internally focused, versus externally focused!

Lastly, Nicole mentioned in her comment above that if she serves a snack, it is a vegetable. I wish we could change our concept of "snack", along these lines. I mean, a few slices of cucumber is very different from a bag of Doritos.

I don't know about you guys, but back when I was a kid, a half of an apple was an afternoon "snack". A bag of potato or corn chips was a "special occassion" food! It seems like we've gotten so off-kilter with this idea that cookies, chips and pop are "snacks" - for regular/daily consumption.

June 28, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterDiane

Diane,

Welcome! I'm glad you're enjoying my site. I agree with you that back when I was a kid, an apple was a snack and chips were occasional treats. But, then, that was before the explosion of "snack" foods and the "snack" aisle in the grocery store.

Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Dina

June 29, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Also, not having a "snack" teaches kids the important concept of delaying of gratification, a concept sorely missing in most children's upbringing these days, and essential to development of age appropriate attention span among other behaviors. In my own experience, there is no justification for snacks between meals, period. It breeds bad life habits for anyone, child or adult.

October 4, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterThera

Thera,

I agree with you and admire your hard line on snacks. I don't think it would work for most families, who see snacks as vital, but I'm glad for everyone to hear that it's possible to live without snacks.

Best,

Dina

October 10, 2012 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

Just came across your website and think this is great advice. The problem I've run into is the snacking habits of others. When at home, I give my daughter a small mid-morning snack to tide her over till lunch (maybe an applesauce or some fruit.) It works great and she eagerly eats almost whatever I present her at lunch time. My friends, however, seem convinced that their kids should graze from a snack buffet all day long...and my child is happy to oblige and eat from their buffet of sugar-sweetened and salt/MSG-laden junk whenever we have playdates. My daughter is only 1-1/2 so I feel I can't just tell her "no" and not allow her to eat when all the other kids are eating. She has had meltdowns over being denied goldfish crackers. In fact, if we are out playing somewhere and she sees food, she becomes obsessed by it, which I think is due to the fact that other kids always have hyper-palatable processed garbage that we do not eat at home.

What would you suggest in this situation, other than making new friends?

September 10, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterAli

Ali,

Welcome to It's Not About Nutrition!

The problem you are having is quite common, so I've decided to answer more fully in a blog post (or two), probably next week. However, there are two separate issues embedded in your question. First, how to handle the food problem. Second, how to handle the behavioral problem. The short answer to the first is: start thinking about proportion. Plan to let your daughter have some junk at playdates but make the rest of the day healthy. Over time, give your daughter choices about when she has her junk. The short answer to the second question is: teach your daughter that meltdowns or tantrums don't work. I'll give specifics in my post.

Hope this helps,

Dina

September 11, 2013 | Registered CommenterDina Rose

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