We have often heard that our child’s diet and activity (or lack thereof) contributes to the current US weight problem in children. In 2008, it was estimated that between 16 and 33 percent of American children were obese.1
But many of us haven’t considered how snacking can add to the health challenges our children face. “New research shows kids eat close to three unhealthy snacks a day,” says the Health Affairs journal. “Researchers examined the eating habits of roughly 31,000 children, ages 2 to 18, across three decades and found that snacking now accounts for 27 percent of a child’s daily calories.”2
What types of snacks do kids eat? Most are sugary, high-fat, processed food products conveniently packaged for those of us parents who want to make quick work of snack time. Children consume about 586 calories a day from snacks. Is it any surprise that they aren’t hungry at dinnertime when we try to serve them healthy foods?
Choosing healthier snacks gives your kids the energy they need to last between meals but doesn’t fill them so full that they are unwilling to eat what’s for dinner. If you’re motivated to change your child’s snack habits, here are some ideas to get you started.
Reduce the Number of Snacks Your Child Eats
Eating between meals can be helpful in meeting our nutrient requirements for the day, as long as it is needed. But if your children are snacking three times a day, it may be too often, depending on their age. I find that my four year old son is able to go without a morning snack when I provide an early lunch. My two year old daughter still benefits from a morning and afternoon snack, so I make sure to space the snacks evenly between meals so she’s still hungry at lunch and dinnertime.
Try cutting out one of your snack times for a day or two if you have a school age child, making sure to feed them healthy meals including breakfast. It’s very important to note that if you don’t eat healthy during the typical mealtimes, your child will be hungry because of the lack of nutrients in their food. Before trying to cut out snacks, you may first need to change up your three main meals to incorporate healthy foods. You should check with your doctor if you have any concerns about your child’s growth.
Look in Your Pantry to Cut out Unhealthy Snacks
One look in our pantries usually tells us exactly where the “snack monster” is lurking in our home. It’s helpful to pull out every boxed and bagged item and read the ingredient and nutrition labels. If you find ingredients you are unable to pronounce, throw it out. If a food product contains more than five grams of sugar per serving or high sodium content, it’s probably not the best thing for your child to be noshing on at snack time. The best snacks are those that come the closest to nature as possible, namely vegetables and fruits.
Transition Your Child from Junk Food to Healthier Snacks
It may be difficult at first to get your children to eat healthier at snack time. Take the time to transition your child to better alternatives to their current choices. If you’re going for a boxed item, a good rule of thumb is to look for products with five ingredients or less and five or more grams of fiber per serving.
Add a fruit or vegetable of your child’s choosing to the snack in addition to their favorites at first. Things like Goldfish and animal crackers aren’t the worst thing in the world, but they are better used as a supplement, not the whole snack.
Aim for portion control in boxed snacks as well. Read the serving size on the side of the container and cut it in half for small children. Incorporating homemade treats on occasion is better than offering packaged cookies or brownies too; plus, they taste so much better!
Once your child has adjusted to this (new!) concept of healthy snacking, cut out the boxed items all together and save them for very special occasions (as in once a month or less). Allow your child to drink only water at snack time. Try out new fruits, vegetables and other whole foods, such as small amounts of low-fat cheese and whole grain crackers with a minimum number of ingredients.
Once you tame the snack monster, both you and your child will benefit from healthier snacking habits that will stay with them for a lifetime!
1Obesity in Children & Teens, http://www.aacap.org, accessed 6/30/2010.
2More Snacking Fueling Childhood Obesity, The Orange County Register, http://healthyliving.ocregister.com, accessed 6/29/2010.