I recently shared an article on Facebook that discussed snacks. The author basically was issuing a call to cut back on the snacks for children, citing that childhood obesity rates have doubled in the last 30 years.
I was very interested to hear the comments on the article. I knew there would be a lot of different points of view and I am always fascinated to hear those. There are a couple of main camps in the eating world right now. One camp tells us to eat 6 small meals a day instead of 3 main meals. They insist this is the healthier way to approach eating. You also have your traditionalists who still insist 3 meals a day and maybe a couple of healthy snacks is the way to go.
Who is right? Impossible to say. There are studies and articles in support of both camps. I would imagine different people do better with different ways. I know I personally do much better on the 3 meals a day plan. I feel much better doing that.
No matter your methodology on number of meals a day, here are some snack policies that can work in your home.
Do Not Let Snacks Interfere With Meals
You want to keep snacks small enough that your child will still eat food at meal time. You also want to have snack time far enough from meal time that your child will eat food at meal time. A lot of families say no snacking an hour before a meal.
A common pitfall parents find themselves in is they let their child eat a light meal rather than a snack. Then when the next meal comes along, the child isn't that hungry. A short while later, the child is starving and needs another "snack."
Or the child, being rather intelligent, picks at the meal she doesn't like because she knows she can just wait an hour or two and go for a snack instead.
Have snack sizes and times so they do not interfere with eating the next meal.
Work Snacks Around Your Mealtimes
The time of day that you have meals will greatly impact when you do and don't allow snacks. A family who eats breakfast at 7 AM and lunch at Noon is more likely to need a mid-morning snack than the family who eats breakfast at 9 AM and lunch and Noon.
A lot of people have an afternoon snack. My kids only have an afternoon snack on school days. We have dinner between 5-5:30. When they are home for lunch, they eat enough food to make it to dinner. On school days, they either don't eat enough (excited for recess) or their bodies use more energy up with all of that learning going on. They often have snacks after school.
Access snack needs based on your own meal schedule.
Offer Healthy Snacks
There is a difference between a "snack" and a "treat." A snack should really be low in salt and low in sugar. When my children want a snack, I allow fruits, vegetables, nuts, or cheese. There can be variations to this at times, like sometimes yogurt, but I really push the fruits and vegetables. I really don't mind my children eating all the fruits and vegetables they want. I wan to point out that of course there are more healthy options than what I just listed--I just keep snacks simple here and am simply sharing what we do.
3 of my children are perfectly happy with this snack arrangement. One, however, often really pushes for some carbs (like a nice piece of white bread) instead of what is offered. My response is that if she isn't hungry enough to eat fruits or vegetables, then she really just isn't hungry. And guess what? At least 50% of the time she opts for no snack at all.
As one person pointed out on Facebook, people just don't get obese "by eating grapes and carrots and drinking water."
If you ever run out of ideas for healthy snacks, you can always google "healthy snacks for kids" and you will find more ideas than you know what to do with.
If the child isn't hungry enough for a healthy snack, the child doesn't need a snack.
Recognize Snack Needs Vary
Children have different metabolisms--even children who come from the same two parents. I know I see that in my own children. Some eat a lot more than others. Children also go through growth spurts, which impacts how hungry they are. A child who normally doesn't need a snack might be asking for one during a growth spurt. Children will also vary how much they need to eat based on activity level. This is very obvious with older children as they get involved in really playing sports. For example, Brayden eats a lot more food when he is having regular workouts for swim team than he does when he has a break from swim team.
I have had two children who, as toddlers, if they got hungry they seriously became unglued. For those two children, snacks were more frequent at that stage of life. I was sure to have food on hand at all times. For the other two, I did not worry about having snacks with us on location, and if they said they were hungry, I would assure them they could eat when we got to food and it was never an issue.
While it is good to have policies, it is also good to be flexible with your general rules. If you are wise in what you offer, snacking will rarely be a real issue. Just a few days ago, my child who typically doesn't eat a lot of food wanted a very large snack. I asked her if she was sure she really could eat that much food for a snack and still eat her dinner coming up in 1.5 hours. She assured me she could, and she did! She had a hungry day.
Different children will have different needs for snacks. The same child can have different needs on different days.
Allow Flexibility on Occasion
When you go to the park with a group of moms, you will likely find a lot of snacking going on. I always let my kids go wild with snacks in situations like this. It isn't every day and we can have days like this without ruining anything. Also, as I just shared, needs can vary from day to day so allow flexibility from the norm when it is needed.
Another point I would like to make is that it is okay to try something and if it doesn't work, don't do it again. Are you wondering if your child can have a snack 45 minutes before a meal and still eat well at the meal? Try it and see. If not, don't do it again. If so, you have your answer.
It is okay to vary from your normal policies on occasion.
These policies should work with your family and can be tweaked and adapted to fit your individual needs. Common sense just works here.
As a side note, a reader shared an interesting article on why hunger is a good thing. Here it is if you are interested.