Sally Kuzemchak was spending Saturday morning the same way millions of us do: watching her kids on the soccer field. Game over, it was time for handshakes and…jumbo frosted cupcakes and cookies, and Capri Sun “flowing like water.” Most of the players had barely broken a sweat. And did I mention it was still morning?
The Ohio mom of two was new to the sports scene, but snacks gone wild wasn’t happening only at soccer. “It seemed like my kids couldn’t do anything without being served packaged cookies, gummy fruit snacks, and a juice pouch,” says Kuzemchak, a dietician who blogs at RealMomNutrition. “I couldn’t help thinking: Wait. What are we doing to these kids, and why are we doing it?”
We’re in a full-fledged snackidemic.
It’s been sneaking up on us, child-health experts say. Why?
- Good intentions: Nurturing our kids is our job. We don’t want them to go hungry. Frequent feedings make sense early in life but become a problem later.
- Convenience: We’re all so busy. Our kids are busy. Grazing on the go is often a shortcut to keeping kids quiet and happy.
- A food industry that works it: “They know we want nutrition, of course, and quick, easy, portable choices that kids will like and that look good,” says pediatric nutritionist Jill Castle, co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chairs to High School. As a result, snack products for kids have exploded, from pouches and squeezes to cup-holder-sized containers and single-serving on-the-go packages.
- Parent guilt: Nobody wants to be “that mom,” the one who speaks up against a growing trend that everybody else seems to like—even if it’s a trend that’s not so great for kids.
Net result: Kids ages 2 to 18 now snarf down three snacks a day, a steady climb between 1989 and 2006, studies show. One in five school-agers eat up to six snacks a day. This represents a huge shift in just 30 years, warns Barry Popkin, a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina. Kids, he says, are moving toward “constant eating.”
What’s so wrong with that? Lots of things, experts say, some pretty surprising:
We’re setting up associations we don’t intend.
Show up to practice and you get a juice-box-and-granola-bar reward at the end. Go to church and get a donut. Whine while mom is on the phone, and the goldfish crackers are yours. These aren’t exactly the messages we mean for our kids to come away with when playing a sport, attending a religious service, or behaving badly. But that’s the link that becomes established in their minds.
Almost without realizing it, we’re collectively using food as a replacement for other things, Castle says: like entertainment, positive reinforcement, time, and attention.
We’re making kids emotionally illiterate.
The real trouble: Kids don’t know what hunger is any more. Not that any of us want our kids to know true starvation. It feels good and right to provide for their basic needs. But…
“What happens is that kids eat so frequently now that they never experience being hungry,” Castle told me. “They say “I’m hungry’ without knowing what real hunger or fullness feels like. They use ‘I’m hungry’ to mean ‘I’m bored’ or ‘I’m impatient’ or ‘I don’t have anything else to do.’”
We’re encouraging picky eating.
Not intentionally, of course. Toddlers and preschoolers are often notoriously fussy or food-indifferent. We want them to eat. So we’re happy to top them off with a snack. But when kids graze all day, they don’t come to dinner hungry enough to be receptive to trying different foods.
“Let’s face it: Chicken and Brussels sprouts aren’t typically as fun as mini-cookies and gummy fruit,” Kuzemchak says. They can more easily wait out the boring dinner foods if they know the next snack is coming.
Our kids are missing out on learning food-culture basics.
Constant grazers miss out on the social benefits of actual meals, too. These include knowing what it’s like to sit at a table, commune with others, use utensils properly, and learn all the manners 101 stuff we pick up around the family table without realizing it .
And yeah, all-day snacking ups their risk for weight and health problems.
Too much of anything is…too much. It’s not coincidence, say Popkin and others, that the numbers of overweight or obese kids have been rising along with the constant-eating trend.
A better way!
Let’s skip: Snacks for activities under 90 minutes long.
There seems to be an unwritten rule that where two or more kids are gathered, There Will Be Snacks: Play groups. Sports practices. Play rehearsals. Study sessions. Scout night. School meetings. Club meetings. “I totally love the community aspect of sharing a snack, but it’s out of hand,” Kuzemchak says. “Snacks are used to entice people to come or to kill time during, say, a half-day camp or a Sunday School class.”
Compare that to how many snacks a day kids physically need, according to Castle:
- Toddlers and preschoolers: 3 meals and 3 snacks a day (because their tummies are smaller)
- From kindergarten through the primary grades: 3 meals, 2 snacks a day
- From middle school up: 3 meals, 1 snack a day (because they eat more at mealtimes than younger kids)
Ideally, Castle adds, snacks should come around, like meals, at roughly predictable times every day.
Let’s skip: Snacks for activities within two hours of a meal.
When practice is at 10:30 a.m. on Saturday and ends before lunch, does there really need to be a team snack provided?
Snacking is so automatically tied to events, not the clock, that some snacks are doled out right before or after meals. But, physiologically, kids just don’t need to eat as often as we think they do, Castle says.
“A school-age child can go three or four hours without a snack,” she says. “Older kids are more like adults—they can go five or six hours without eating.”
Bonus for all of us: fewer dreaded Snack Time Sign-Up sheets!
Let’s skip: Snacks at sports practice.
Most rec-league soccer players, Little Leaguers, and other junior athletes don’t need a snack break during practice. Let’s face it: The average team player isn’t training at Olympic levels of exertion—or even sweating it out that much, at least before high school. In fact, a review in Current Sports Medicine Reports shows that kids involved in sports eat more junk food than kids who don’t play sports. And nutritionists point out that kids burn about 100-150 calories during a typical soccer game but get about 300-500 calories from a snack after the game.
“Unless they’re vigorously exercising for an hour or more at a high level, they don’t need a snack. Not even a sports drink or juice,” Castle told me. “Just water.”
The exception: Elite-level teenagers who are working out hard for two hours a day might need two snacks a day, rather than one, which might coincide around a practice. That said, donuts, cookies, or chips aren’t doing them any fuel favors.
Let’s skip: Snacks for the whole class/club/team.
Group snacks don’t take into account the timing of other meals. And they get way complicated fast when we have to factor in everyone’s specific dietary needs or family nutritional standards.
What suits everyone on a team by avoiding allergies, sugar-frowning, special diets for gluten or vegetarianism, and all the rest might not be the best for one individual child. Or it might mean lots of raisins and rice cakes. As needed, let’s all bring our own.
Let’s skip: Snacks on the move.
Castle calls it “stroller snack syndrome”: pacifying a child with a pre-emptive snack when you need to walk or drive in peace.
It works: The kids are quiet. But soon they’re conditioned to link “go” with “gobble.” Those are the seeds of mindless eating, which is linked to weight problems. A book or a cup of water would also do the trick, Castle says. Just because your car and stroller come with snack holders doesn’t mean you have to use them.
Let’s skip: Snacks at the playground…in church…anywhere the focus isn’t on food.
No kid is going to starve during the average religious service, no matter how long the sermon seems. Ditto for most planned outings—they just don’t last long enough to worry about food.
In the long run, it’s better for kids to focus on the experience itself—the sights, the sounds, the reason they’re there.Of course, timing snafus happen. Nothing wrong with packing some apple slices or crackers for your toddler or preschooler when a scheduled snack time falls during a playground run.
Let’s skip: Snacks a la Pinterest.
Rice Krispies Treats shaped like baseballs. Robots made of juice boxes, applesauce, and pretzels. Themed treat bags complete with shamrock-shaped cookies or chocolate eggs. Full fancy spreads where a few clementines would do.
It’s one thing to go all out for a special occasion. But every day or every week? “I’ve never met a parent who wasn’t happy about taking something OFF the to-do list,” Kuzemchak says.
Instead…let’s aim for the moderate middle.
It can be hard to be the first one who says “Enough!” Kuzemchak told me.
She recalls that for game after game, she stayed silent about the junky snack excess she was seeing because she didn’t want to be a spoilsport. But when she finally spoke up, the coach agreed and made new snacking rules—just fruit and water. After that, many of the parents expressed relief about not having to bring junk food and loved saving money. (She now offers other parents scripts for letters to coaches and camp directors.)
“It’s an emotionally-charged topic,” she says. But when moms actually talk about the subject, she finds that pretty much everyone cares about eating healthy and wants to do the right thing.
Sometimes, she suggests, it just takes one person to get things started by asking, “Hey, do we really need this? Let’s scrap the snacks this time!”