Take a look at this email I received from a mom of a first-grader, preschooler and toddler. It clearly illustrates the struggle that health-conscious parents experience when faced with frequent snack times:
It seems like snacks are unnecessarily built into most children's activities, and we are struggling with how to handle it. For example, the kids are given snacks at church, which is only 1 1/2 hours long. I don't see any reason that they need to be given snacks during these short timeframes. They are always a processed food (goldfish, pretzels, etc.). Or even worse, A is in Girl Scouts and parents bring snacks to each meeting (again, 1 1/2 hours long from 6-7:30pm). The snacks that other parents bring drive me crazy—cupcakes, donuts, cookies, brownies, etc. I've yet to see a healthy food pass through. Any suggestions on how to handle those situations? Also, any thoughts on how incorporating junk food into fun activities for kids could influence their food choices (i.e., strengthening positive associations with unhealthy foods)? I don't really think snacks are necessary during any of these types of activities, but if they are going to be included, it seems like a perfect opportunity to introduce fresh, healthy foods. If it's their only option, there's a great chance they will eat it. And surely carrots don't cost more than Goldfish. Gah!
An Irritated Mom
Snacks are everywhere. It seems that snacks are used in many situations as a guaranteed time to make the kids happy and pass a few minutes—something easy to build into almost every activity. Unfortunately, providing snacks is often unnecessary and frequently interferes with kids eating balanced meals at mealtimes. And, as “An Irritated Mom”mentions, snacks can create an unhealthy emotional relationship. When an adult associates junk food with happy times in childhood, he or she may use those same unhealthy foods to try to emotionally recreate or reconnect with happy times. So what to do about it?
If you’re a parent facing a similar struggle, here are a couple of ideas:
1. Advocacy. In the case of “An Irritated Mom,”perhaps she could suggest to the church and Girl Scout leadership to develop a policy that snacks be healthy. There has been a lot of research in this area, especially related to the quality of nutrition in child care centers, and the importance of providing nutrient-dense snacks. Along these lines, you could also make sure that, when it is your turn to bring snacks to activities and play dates, you bring a very healthy (but tasty) snack to set an example. If the other parents see that the kids love the healthy snack, maybe some of them will do the same.
2. Teach the signs of hunger and fullness. Help your kids learn as best they can how to tell signs of hunger and fullness, and remind them to eat when they’re hungry and stop when they're full. If that means they aren't hungry at snack time, then they should know that it is okay to not eat anything.
3. Let it go. If you feel that the battle is not worth fighting in certain situations, it is okay to just let it go. Ultimately, parents cannot possibly protect their kids from all potentially “harmful” influencers. You probably wouldn’t want to anyway since highly controlling and restrictive parents tend to have children who rebel against their parents’ best wishes anyway. At the end of the day, an unnecessary snack here and there is not going to make that much of a difference (though it could if many different organizations are doing it on a regular basis).
Finally, health-conscious parents should keep doing what they already are doing—creating an environment at home (where the kids spend most of their time) that supports healthy and balanced eating.
By Natalie Digate Muth
Natalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RDNatalie Digate Muth, MD, MPH, RD is the Senior Nutrition Consultant for the American Council on Exercise, a community pediatrician, registered dietitian, mom, and author of “’Eat Your Vegetables!’ and Other Mistakes Parents Make: Redefining How to Raise Healthy Eaters.”