Just to make things clear, yes, of course, I give snacks to my children! I just learned how to navigate the "snacking issue" so that it works with my children' diet. The whole "snacking issue" is a big deal for me. When people ask me how French people manage to stay thin despite their butter-cream-pastry-sauce-chocolate-wine diet, I often tell them that French people don't snack. While not entirely true, it is a fact that we are not used to eating entre les repas (in-between meals). I strongly believe that not snacking is the key element to make children eat healthier food, develop good eating habits, and avoid obesity or other health-related problems (diabetes, cardiovascular, psychological, etc.) in the future.
A snack is a small amount of food that you eat to make you wait for your next meal. So, by definition, it's not a meal; it should also be far enough (in time) from a proper meal so that the whole body has time to digest and burn the calories previously eaten and to shift to the "I'm hungry" mode. In other words, it's OK for a child to feel hungry by the time she sits for lunch/dinner. And yes, for parents, this is the hardest to accept: that our children could be a little bit hungry at some point. As Cornell studies have shown, relying on "the hunger feeling", as opposed to "I'll eat until the TV show is over" is what also helps French people stay thin.
Children (and obviously all children have different needs) generally need a mid-morning snack (about 2-3 hours after their breakfast and 1.5 hour before their lunch; then a mid-afternoon snack (about 2-3 hours after their lunch) and then dinner. For instance, here is how the day could be:
- Breakfast at 7am
- Mid-morning snack at 10am
- Lunch at 11.45 am
- Mid-afternoon snack at 3.30pm
- Dinner at 6 pm
If you start feeding children a snack while in the stroller or at the playground, they'll get used to it and will expect it. The same is true for the content of the snack: if you only give them salty crackers, they'll expect the same crackers and it will take some time to move away from them. I remember when my children got into the bad habit of asking for a snack the minute we got into the car. It started because my older was not eating a proper breakfast in the morning so I would allow her to have food in the car on her way to school. It took me a few trips without food to make them accept the fact that being in the car did not equal with eating food.
I also remember this little boy who, whenever he got into his stroller, would extend his hand towards his mother/father to request food. They would have packed three or four different snacks (sesame sticks, cereals, dry fruits, fresh fruits) and would give him "whatever he felt like having at that time of the day". This was not his dinner; this was not his mid-afternoon-snack, it was just "the stroller snack".
The fact that children get used to having snacks is good news because it means that it is possible, with some will, to reverse, or at least modify, this habit. Obviously, there are times when it is necessary to give snacks to our children, mostly when :
- the usual meal times are going to be off.
- a child skipped his previous meal or did not eat enough.
But giving a snack to "buy peace" or to "make children happy" are not enough reasons for me, especially when we think in the longer term. Right, but what do we do?
Know your child and her diet:
- How often do your children eat per day, counting ALL food intakes, including milk and juices?
- How much do they eat each time?
- Do you find yourself giving them food just before a major meal and then having difficulties making them eat that meal?
- Do your children request food? Which type? Why? (habit? boredom? hunger?)
- Do you (yourself and your husband) snack as well? Do your children request food when you are having a snack yourself?
With the answers to these questions, you could start making slight adjustments so as to reduce the frequency and content of snacks so that your child only eats 5 times a day.
Count the "snack" calories: when too much is too much?
A two-year-old child with moderate physical activity needs about 1,000 calories per day. If you accept the idea that children will eat 5 times a day (3 meals plus 2 snacks) and that the meals (breakfast, lunch, dinner) have to be the largest calories intakes, here is how the calories could come from:
- Breakfast: 250 calories
- Mid-morning snack: 75 calories
- Lunch 300 calories
- Mid-Afternoon snack: 75 calories
- Dinner: 300 calories
Counting calories is no fun, let alone difficult, but just to give you an idea of how much is how much (not going into the quality if of the calories), let's look at the serving size of favorite American snacks:
- Cherrios: 1/2 cup (15g) provides about 65 calories
- Goldfish baked cheddar crackers: 25 fishes provide about 75 calories
- Mini Snyder pretzels: 10 mini crackers provide about 50 calories
- Blueberries 50 blueberries provide about 40 calories
- Baby carrots: 14 baby carrots provide about 35 calories
- Fruit bar: 1 fruit bar provides about 60 calories
Take it easy and relax about it:
It's going to require some time and energy to make your children accept not to snack as much and to eat healthier snacks. It's all the more difficult that you might live in an environment where people snack all the time. Take it easy; make small but subtle changes in your children' diet and you'll see the rewards!
To give you a few ideas, here are a few things that I have started to implement with my children and that seem to be working:
- If my children need a snack (at 10 am for instance because they ate breakfast around 7am), I make it "part of their meal": ie, I don't give them cheese crackers, I give them fresh fruits, a fruit bar, dry fruits, a few almonds, a few carrots, celery sticks, or just a piece of bread.
- I only pack one type of snack if I have to go somewhere so that if they are hungry, they'll eat it.
- If my children request a snack, I offer them a fresh apple (skin off, sliced). If they are not hungry for an apple, they are not hungry.
- I'm aware of what they drink : I rarely offer them juice during the day, except for orange juice for breakfast. Giving them juice only gives them "empty" calories. If I give them juice, then the snack is smaller to account for the calories from the juice.
- I give them sweets on an irregular basis. Candies are a treat and not "a habit". If I give them candies (or chocolate), I try to give them around their mid-afternoon snack (instead of a cookie for instance) so that they'll be hungry when comes dinner time.
- I make exceptions whenever I am with other families whose eating habits are different or when we go out. However, I am OK with saying "no" when I think they had enough or it's too close to our meal time.
- I don't purchase unhealthy snacks (I have snacks that are not-so-healthy though!). I always buy the large packages (cheaper!) but except for individual-size packs (like the ones we got for Halloween), they never eat straight from the bag (studies from Cornell University have shown that you tend to eat more if you eat food straight from the bag! )
I'll write another post with a list of my preferred snacks. Until then, try to slowly cut on snacks and switch to healthier snacks. It can only help your children! Good luck!