Updated: Jul 2
Remote learning has been a test of many things, especially parents’ patience. It might seem easy to give in and let your kids graze on snacks all day, but here’s what can happen if you close the kitchen.
Parenting and snacking go hand-in-hand. It starts with Cheerios or Puffs in a little plastic, spill-proof container and moves on to adolescents raiding the pantry and fridge. Snacking is essential to children, especially young children, who need lots of nutrients to meet the needs of their growing bodies. But I have found that the pandemic has parents at their wits-end, taking on the struggle of working from home, teaching their children simultaneously, and providing a constant flow of snacks to satisfy the frustrated, or bored, child.
Is it OK for kids to snack?
Snacking is an essential way to provide nutrients to kids, especially toddlers and young children whose stomachs can only hold a small amount of food at a time. Unfortunately, the choice of snack is usually the problem. Snacking should really be an opportunity to provide nutritious foods that fill in the nutrient gaps.
In a meta-analysis of 23 observational studies, researchers found that higher calorie meals and snacks led to a higher risk of obesity in kids.
We’re feeding our kids Cheez Its and “natural” gummy fruit snacks, thinking it’s going to give our kids the energy they need. Instead, we’re increasing their tolerance and desire for these salty and sugary snacks and teaching them that these foods are appropriate for everyday - sometimes, all-day consumption.
Childhood is a time to set life-long habits and taste preferences. Kids can’t discern health consequences from foods as adults can; it is our job to do that for them. High fat, sugary snacks do not provide the nutrients required for kids to perform in physical activity. These highly palatable foods are a norm nowadays and can become addictive, leading to a pattern of obesity.
And, often, snacks are given on demand, as handouts, while running in the park, while waiting in line, on every car trip….and now, during remote learning at home.
For my family, it’s gotten to the point where a walk outside automatically triggers the question, “Did you bring any snacks, mom??”
As does the start of the remote school day...we may have finished breakfast 15 minutes beforehand, but the second their Zoom meeting connects, they’re already asking for snacks.
Instead, snacking can be a way to emulate how to appreciate food and remain mindful in eating.
What should you do when your kids beg for snacks all day?
Snacking is important but shouldn’t be doled out as dictated by your kids- it should be strategic. Snacks can offer nutrients that your child didn’t eat in the previous meal or that you suspect they may not eat in the next.
Constant snacking, or grazing, keeps kids just a little too full for meals.
To expect kids to sit for a meal and eat, they need to be a little hungry.
Strategic, planned snacks are the answer.
Here’s how to plan your kids’ snacks:
-Plan 2-3 snacks per day for toddlers, 1-2 for older children and adolescents.
-This will vary based on one’s activity and needs, and energy demands.
-Set a time between meals to offer nutritious snacks and only at that time
-Ideally, this will be spaced in between the main meals with allowance of enough time for everyone to develop a little hunger for the next meal.
-Sit down for snacks. Set snacks out at the table as often as you can. Even if you’re at the park, sit down on a bench.
-This teaches everyone that food should be enjoyed mindfully. (Besides the fact that eating while running around is a choking hazard. And, I don’t know about you, but I’m really tired of following my kids around with a broom to catch crumbs all over the house.)
What if my child cries that she’s hungry at other times?
If you’re providing nutritious, sustaining foods and snacks, you can start shedding that guilt at refusing extra snack handouts because you know (and she’ll know) that another opportunity to eat will be right around the corner. The more you set up consistent patterns of eating, the more your child can trust that if he decides not to eat now, they’ll be another chance soon. But not until then.
It also teaches your child to trust himself - he can gauge how much to eat depending on what his body feels like right now, how much he likes the food, and when the next time to eat will be. And isn’t that what we want for our children...to grow up and trust that they know their body best and not to fall victim to outside pressures?
What kind of snacks should I provide?
Unfortunately, kids’ snacks have become ubiquitous with sugary desserts or salty, crunchy, high fat, shelf-stable items.
The kinds of meals and snacks that will sustain kids (and adults, for that matter) are those with protein, fiber, and healthy fats. As Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD says, snacks are the “ace in the parents’ hole.” It’s a time to squeeze in those nutrients that they may have missed in a previous meal.
Filling, nutritious snack ideas for kids:
Here are some snack ideas for school-age kids for school, for home, or on the go. Adapt the textures and sizes according to your child’s development.
Apple slices with nut butter
Whole-grain pretzels with a glass of milk
Energy Balls like these
Homemade ice pops like these cocoa chickpea pops
Homemade popcorn sprinkled with Nutritional Yeast
Hummus and veggies
Chocolate hummus and whole-grain crackers
Homemade whole wheat pita chips and salsa
Whole wheat toast and peanut butter
Plain Greek yogurt with fruit and/or granola
Trail mix with nuts and dried fruit
Turkey and cheese roll-ups
Edamame and whole-grain pretzels
Should I give my kids a bedtime snack?
Ellyn Satter, MS, RD, LCSW, BCD suggests that bedtime snacks should be “filling, not thrilling.” This means the bedtime snack should not be a treat offered as a reward for eating dinner. The bedtime snack should be similar to other snacks throughout the day; full of fiber and protein, nutritious and hearty; not something for which the kids will intentionally skip dinner because it’s so tempting.
So the bedtime snack, again, offers the opportunity to nourish kids with healthy nutrients that they may not have otherwise consumed in their meals. Some of our favorites are:
Homemade pumpkin oatmeal cookies
Chocolate hummus with whole-grain crackers
Plain Greek yogurt with fruit/granola
So I said, “No” to Snacking and Here’s What Happened
“Can I have a snack?”
“Sure you can...after lunch, which will be in half an hour!” (Not only did I delay the snack until the appropriate time, I turned my negative answer into a positive one.)
It might be a battle at first...but it’s worth it. After just a few times of saying no, my kids accepted it. I feel confident that I’m planning healthy meals and snacks and that my kids are eating the right amount for their growing bodies and learning to trust their own hunger and fullness signals.
Of course, there are times when I want to give in and I don’t. And there are times when I do give in. But I’m consistent the majority of the time and my family knows what to expect.
Do you close the kitchen in between meals? I challenge you to try. Extra bonus if you tackle snacks on the playground or soccer field. 😉
Kerr, J.A., Jansen, P.W., Mensah, F.K. et al. Child and adult snack food intake in response to manipulated pre-packaged snack item quantity/variety and snack box size: a population-based randomized trial. Int J Obes 43, 1891–1902 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41366-019-0407-z
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