Do you need some tips on healthy snacking for your kids? Are you dismayed that junk food has become a normalized part of your child’s day? Every day? I invited author and activist Bettina Elias Siegel author of the new book, Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. to answer some questions.
How do you handle snacking?
There’s nothing wrong with snacking. Most kids, especially younger children, typically do need at least one or two snacks to make it through the day.
The problems with snacking tend to center around what and how kids are eating.
In other words, snack time can be an opportunity to offer kids healthy foods. That includes whole grain crackers, fresh fruit, hummus, etc. Or it can be an occasion to eat a lot of highly processed foods. That includes things like Goldfish crackers or toddler “fruit” snacks.
Similarly, snacking can be relatively structured. Kids can eat at regular snack times while (ideally) sitting at a table. Or it can mean letting kids mindlessly graze all day long, with unfettered access to the pantry.
So these are the things parents should be thinking about:
- Making sure snacking isn’t preventing their kids from coming to the table with a hearty appetite.
- Not relying too much on ultra-processed food that it makes healthy, whole food a harder sell.
Who do you look to for guidance in regard to snacking?
I’m not a dietitian or a pediatrician so when it comes to specific feeding advice, I look to trusted resources.
Celebrations and cupcakes are part of life. How much is too much?
I agree that celebrations and sweets definitely have a place in our children’s lives! When my own two kids were younger, we loved going out for ice cream, baking cookies, or choosing cupcakes from our favorite bakery.
The issue today, as many beleaguered parents can tell you, is that our children seem to be “treated” at every turn. In Kid Food, I walk the reader through a typical day in the life of a fourth grader. I show how she could easily consume an astonishing 18 to 25 teaspoons of added sugar. That is three to four times her recommended daily quota, just from treats alone. That does not include any added sugars consumed at home and/or in her regular meals.
Unfortunately, though, it’s also hard for parents to push back against this treat deluge. After all, what’s the big deal with one cupcake in school, or one lollipop handed out at band practice? You might look unreasonable for speaking up, because the person giving out the treat doesn’t see the big picture of your child’s daily diet.
The American Academy of Pediatrics’ Healthychildren.org recommends the following groups of kids snacking. Keep on hand, pack in lunchboxes, or grab on the go.
How do you talk to your child’s teacher about snacks?
If your child’s teacher asks parents to send in a snack for the entire class on a rotating basis, it can become problematic. Some parents may mistakenly think they’re making a healthy choice. They may have been misled by questionable “healthy” claims on product packaging. Or parents may know they’re sending in junk food but just want to “treat” kids with something fun.
Work with your teacher and other interested parents to come up with an approved snack list. Include lots of different kinds of healthy items. Make sure to include some available at every price point. That way all parents have clearer guidance on what’s OK to send in for the entire class. (Here’s one example from Lisa Leake, the blogger and cookbook author at 100 Days of Real Food.)
How do you talk to other parents about healthy snack culture?
Talking to principals, soccer coaches, Scout leaders and other people about these issues can be very touchy. No one likes to feel judged for their food choices. And you don’t want to come off like the “sugar police.”
That’s why I offer in Kid Food 14 time-tested rules for face-to-face advocacy. These can help concerned parents approach these conversations in a tactful but effective way.
Rule number one is “Don’t Go It Alone.” If you can find even one parent who feels the way you do, you’re much less likely to have your concerns brushed aside.
Another good rule is to “Be Informed.” For example, as I explain in Kid Food, there are federal wellness policy rules that can help strengthen a parent’s position in improving classroom snacks—but first, you have to know what those rules state and how to use them to your advantage.
Do you tell your children to refuse unhealthy snacks?
I know some parents do tell their children to voluntarily pass up any unhealthy foods offered to them. But in my own experience, that’s a pretty heavy burden to put on kids, especially young children!
Most children don’t want to set themselves apart from their peers. It’s just generally hard to sit by while your friends are happily diving into cupcakes or donuts. After all, studies show that even we adults have a very hard time resisting unhealthy food. That’s especially true when we’re feeling mentally taxed, as kids often are at school.
So that’s why my focus has always been less about shaping individual behavior and more about shaping our children’s overall environment. That way they’re not bombarded by unhealthy snacks as often.
What do you think about using sweets as rewards?
Every medical and pediatric association that has addressed the issue says that food rewards are just not a good idea. Rewarding kids with sweets encourages them to eat when they’re not hungry. It can also send the message that sweets are somehow better or more desirable than healthier foods. That happens, for example when a parent uses dessert as a reward for eating dinner.
And when we offer sweets as a reward for getting through some stressful or difficult event, it can teach kids that food is a good way to self-soothe. That can set them up for a lifetime of poor eating habits.
And finally, when they’re used in the classroom, candy rewards can also undermine any nutrition education kids might receive.
For more parenting resources:
- Tips for Cooking with Kids
- How to Control Kids’ Sugar Rush During Holidays
- Back to School Kids Lunchbox Ideas
If you find this guide for Kids Snacking Tips useful, I’d love to hear from you! And if you snapped some shots of any of these tips and tricks, please share it with me on Instagram so I can repost on my stories!