Healthy You: Solutions to youthful snacking

I’ve written about kids and snacks before, but I thought I’d address it once again. It’s a frustrating topic for a lot of parents, and I want to talk about some specific frustrations and solutions.
Sometimes it feels challenging enough for parents and caregivers to figure out what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner, let alone what to serve hungry mouths between meals. Why is it so challenging? Do kids actually need snacks, and what do you do when your kiddo only wants snacks instead of meals?
Snacks are significant for several reasons. More than 90% of children in the U.S eat them, according to research from 2018, and they can make up at least 25% of daily caloric needs. I would wager that those numbers have increased since the COVID-19 outbreak, with kids sequestered at home and the added stress of uncertain times.
Purchasing “snack foods” can also eat up a larger portion of a monthly food budget than we’d like to admit.
Personal experience has taught me that I was capable of spending well over $30 a month on extra snacky items that didn’t even make up the majority of the meals we needed to eat. These insidious extras really messed with my monthly budget. Yes, snacks can have a more significant effect on our pocketbooks than we realize.
Additionally, snacks are significant because they provide yet another opportunity to teach our kids what is “normal,” acceptable and nourishing (both in food and behavior). Often we don’t think about our role of training them in mealtime moments. We just want it to be simple, easy and fuss-free.
However, as our children grow, they develop opinions, push boundaries and make poor choices (ice cream for breakfast, anyone?). They need training to direct them to what is better/best.
What we consistently give our kids for food and snacks is what becomes normal and acceptable to them. Behaviors you allow or the reactions you tolerate at the table in response to what you provide becomes OK (it’s the difference of “yuck” vs. “thank you”). For better or worse, we are setting some beginning trends in our kids by the food we provide and behaviors we allow.
Feeding our children takes some time, money and parental maturity, so how do we navigate some common problematic scenarios while attempting to satisfy in-between meal hunger pangs?
Here are a few common scenarios. Remember that the objective of a snack is to nourish and satisfy children until they eat a regular meal. Normally, these are quick and hopefully uncomplicated  food options.

Problem #1: My kids aren’t hungry at mealtime. They want only snacks.
There could be several reasons for this.
They could be eating snacks that are too big or too close to mealtime. If you get home from school at 4 p.m. and expect to eat dinner at 5, then letting them drink a container of chocolate milk and munch on a bag of chips on the ride home will, of course, leave their bellies too full.
Your children may be continuously snacking with small things until dinner. They can easily, once again, overfill themselves.
How to Respond:  
1.) Set snacktime limits. An hour and a half to two hours before dinner is a good starting point. It also depends on the snack. If it’s a hearty peanut butter and jelly sandwich (vs. carrot sticks and dip), then you’d want a larger gap between snack and dinner time. The more filling the snack, the larger the gap.
2.) Remember to give your kids a snack (a food item at a certain point in time), but don’t let them snack  (i.e., the continuous act of munching). It’s easy to munch on bags of pretzels or a jar of yogurt. Dish a snack out and put it away immediately.

Problem No. 2: My kids don’t like the healthy snacks I provide. 
Reasons: Your children could just be controlling or testing boundaries. They also might just genuinely not like the choice, especially if you’re switching from unhealthy snacks to healthier ones. It’s normal to not like the change.
How to respond:  Remember that a snack is not “owed” (shocker, isn’t it?!). Given that your healthy snacks are reasonable, just keep offering them. If the kiddos are actually hungry, they’ll eat it. And if not, they’ll be ready for dinner! Bonus!

Problem No. 3: My kids go through snack foods so fast. I can’t afford this! It’s too expensive.
Reasons: Your children may be growing (especially young boys), or your snacks may be more expensive and “treat-like,” or super-appealing.
How to respond: Limit expensive, prepackaged snack foods.  Maybe have one special item on hand each week. Once it’s gone, it’s gone. You aren’t obligated to buy more until you’re ready.
Also, don’t forget that real, unpackaged food (like PBJs, a glass of regular milk, beans and cheese or a piece of fruit) are more sustainable, budget-friendly options (likely healthier, too!).

Problem No. 4: My kid is hungry. All. The. Time.
Growth spurts and activity.  Active, growing kids are hungry more often. However, that’s more likely caused by the following:
♦ They’re too rushed or distracted at mealtime and can’t focus to eat enough. Make enough time. Cut out distractions.  Maybe you need to plan meals better.
♦ Too picky. It’s normal from time to time for kids to not like what they’re served. As parents, though, we have to set the bar. Our job is to provide food and train respectful behavior when they don’t like it. Their job is to eat (even if it’s not a lot) and to learn how to respond respectfully.  With consistency, picky kids get hungry enough to eat regular meals, even ones that aren’t their favorite.
♦ Meals are not satiating (filling). If you aren’t providing well-balanced meals of real foods with protein, fiber, fat and carbs, then your kids won’t feel satisfied long. Meals full of sugar or processed food digests too rapidly and leave a person feeling hungry even if he or she consumed a lot of calories.
♦ Your children might not really be hungry. There can be a lot of reasons they eat. (We do it as adults, too.) Boredom, stress, uncertainties with family or friend relationships, hormonal swings or even bad habits picked up from us.
If they’re always hungry but not very active, it may be worth figuring out why they reach for food. You may need to look at yourself first (an uncomfortable reality) to see if you’re setting any patterns of poor coping mechanisms in relation to food.
So there you have it: a few solutions for common snack problems.
Ultimately, feeding your kids food or snacks doesn’t have to be overly complicated. It comes down to a few things. Be the parent. Provide regular meals as best you can. Offer healthy snacks. Set appropriate snack boundaries, the frequency of snacking and the behavior/allowed responses to these choices.
This creates a lot more space to enjoy your kids and not stress about food in the long run.

Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN). She and her husband and daughters live in the Lebanon area.