Children, in particular, require several small meals per day, and snacks can help make up for nutrients they don’t get during meals. Snacking at any age is perfectly normal, and carefully chosen snacks can add to good dietary habits. Most Americans, however, do not snack wisely.
Over the last decade or more, snacking has been thrown under some serious scrutiny. According to the American Dietetic Association, 60 percent of Americans eat snack food regularly, consuming about 20 percent of their calories from snacks, and most toddlers get as much as a third of their calories from snacks. Children, in particular, require several small meals per day, as their stomachs cannot hold large amounts of food at one time, and snacks can help make up for nutrients they don’t get during meals. Snacking at any age is perfectly normal, and carefully chosen snacks can add to good dietary habits. Most Americans, however, do not snack wisely.
Ah, the last sentence says it all. It’s not necessarily how much snacking we are doing, it’s what we are snacking on. With that said, the question remains: How much do kids really need to snack on during the day?
It’s not such an easy question to answer. It’s a delicate balance—finding a way to keep children well fed so they can concentrate at school but also making sure they don’t eat too much. Clearly, with childhood obesity rates at an all-time high, we have not yet found that balance in America.
Every child is different. While some kids don’t need to eat as frequently, others get low blood sugar easily and need to space their meals and snacks accordingly. Below are six tips, for every kind of eater, on how to snack wisely.
Stick to two a day
As kids get older, their stomachs get bigger, so they don’t need to eat every 30 minutes like they did when they were infants. By the time they are toddlers and able to go to school several days a week, they will benefit from a structured eating pattern. One mid-morning snack and another in the afternoon—and that’s it.
Structured eating patterns are important, especially for small children. Kids should eat their meals around the same time every day, and snacks should come in between those meals. A random feeding schedule makes it hard for parents to determine how much their child is eating and when the child is actually hungry. It’s much easier for parents to assess how much food their kids are eating if they are sitting down for a snack at the same time every day. I’m aware of my own intake, but even I can’t figure out how much I’ve eaten if I graze all day. By instilling some structure, you can prevent kids from picking up this habit.
Balance blood sugar
While we don’t want kids to graze all day, we do want to make sure their blood sugar levels stay consistent. The trick is to rely on protein to keep blood sugar at an even keel. Most kids are carb junkies, but carb-filled foods like fruit, noodles, and crackers can cause blood sugar to spike and then drop. Adding in some protein will help them feel fuller longer, so they can go two to three hours in between snacks and meals. The bonus: Spacing out meals and snacks will let them get hungry, meaning you’ll have much less of a battle at dinnertime because they’ll be ready to gobble down their meal. Extra bonus: Less whining, crying, and fewer outbursts.
Ban snacks right before meals
This includes beverages like smoothies and sodas. Little tummies fill up fast, and lots of liquid right before a meal will shut off their hunger.
Slow it down
Of course, there are many days when snacks will be served in the car and on the go, but when possible, try to sit the kids down at a table and treat snack time as a proper meal (with no TV!). Research has shown that children who eat in front of the television eat more calories. It’s never too early to teach them good
Set the bar high
The most obvious tip to snacking wisely is to provide snacks that are nutritious and beneficial to growing bodies. Just because we are eating in between meals doesn’t mean we should reach for the chips and cookies. Again, we are teaching kids how to eat for life—the earlier they learn these simple lessons, the healthier they will be, now and in the future.
With that in mind, here are some nutritious snack ideas:
• High-protein snack foods: yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese, cubed tofu, hard-boiled eggs, nuts or nut butters (if your little one is allergic to nuts, try sunflower seed butter or soy butter), sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, tuna (but keep their weekly intake low because of the mercury levels in this fish), kidney beans, black beans, turkey, chicken, hummus
• High-quality carbohydrate snacks: dried fruit, apple or banana chips, fruit smoothies, black olives, low-sugar granola or cereals, trail mix, sliced fresh fruit, popcorn (not for tiny kids—it’s a choking hazard), vegetables with dip, apple butter on whole grain bread, honey-banana sandwiches (with peanut butter if possible), frozen grapes or blueberries
It can sound like a lot of work to change your family’s snack habits, but it will be worth it in the end. Kids and adults will benefit from having healthier food in the house.
Also see: Snacking Explained: How Kids Regulate Caloric Intake