Lately, my 4-year-old’s favourite refrain is, “Mom, I need a snack!” And regardless of how I feel about his constant nibbling, he has snack breaks during school, birthday parties and play time. Special events like the movies are associated with popcorn and “treats,” too.
While it is worrisome that children are eating much more frequently, it’s even more alarming to see what they’re snacking on. “They are shifting to very low-quality junk food,” says Barry Popkin, professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina.
It’s not necessarily hunger that’s driving all of this noshing. Indeed, doctors worry that the trend toward near-constant snacking is disrupting the body’s ability to sense when it is full. Eating is supposed to satisfy a physiological need: you consume something and it takes a while for your body to digest it.
Only when it finally does so should you start to crave more sustenance. “But the number of times these kids are eating, they don’t have a chance to be hungry,” says Popkin.
Still, that’s not to say your kids shouldn’t be eating a little something between meals. “Snacks do play a role in healthy eating,” says paediatric dietitian Kelly Sinclair. A morning snack may be necessary, depending on wakeup time, but Sinclair believes that all kids need an afternoon snack, to help them through that interminable stretch between lunch and dinner.
The quality of the nibble is more important than the quantity. Sinclair recommends a 100-to-200-calorie snack that is small and substantial, as opposed to cookies or sweets, “which are desserts, not snacks.”And while she acknowledges that it can be difficult for parents to insist on more healthy options, especially if they have not done that before, she says it is absolutely essential to good long-term eating habits.
So go for half a turkey sandwich, cheese and crackers, or an array of colourful vegetables with bean dip or hummus.“Snacks should be something to satisfy hunger — just a little fuel in your system so you don’t overeat later,” she says.