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Kids and snacking: Finding a happy, healthy balance

Kids and food – it’s a tricky topic. There are a whole host of issues with kids and eating: allergies, pickiness, disabilites … the list goes on and on!
I won’t attempt to plumb the depths of all kids’ eating issues, nor will I pretend to be the chief expert on such matters.
My children, after all, are only 3 years old and 7 months old. There’s a lot I haven’t encountered when it comes to feeding my children. However, I have had enough kid experience under my belt to have seen some interesting patterns.
With the coming of summer, parents and grandparents alike often find the change of routine, the addition of kids’ friends playing over or just having the kids around more often, a little challenging when it comes to food.
There is one particular food frustration among parents that seems to be common: “the snack attack!” You know, when kids are always nagging to have a snack?
It makes errands inconvenient (or a battle), the car a crumbly mess and getting ready for dinner a frustration.
Do all kids really need snacks? Small people have small stomachs and busy, growing bodies. Surely they need to eat frequently. How do you provide it so everyone’s more satisfied and happy?
It is difficult for kids to not believe snacks are their birthright, when the truth is we live in a “snack culture.” Food items are marketed (paid to look and taste desirable) and seem readily available.
It doesn’t even matter if a kid is truly hungry.
In many cases (and the same is true for us adult too), kids have lost the feeling of what real, healthy hunger is feels like. We “out-snack” our real hunger and are quickly satiated with a little bite or slurp of something.
In addition to making us not feel hungry for larger meals, the availability of snacks makes it even easier to respond to other stimuli like thirst, tiredness, boredom or negative emotions with the quick-to-grab food or beverage.
The difficult-yet-obvious fact is that most snack foods are junky foods: pretzels, chips, high-sugar yogurts, candy, vitamin- and sport-waters sweetened with artificial sweeteners or high-fructose corn syrup. Refined foods are what are offered as snacks.
It is true that young kids are growing rapidly and may experience more hunger in between meals, but there’s a way to determine how much extra an average kid needs a day.
First, make sure they are healthy overall per your doctor, who will be able to discuss where your child is on the growth curve – behind or ahead. For the average kid, though, the primary way I suggest to determine how much and when your kid needs a snack is to feed them “real food” and then witness what happens.
Real food means unrefined foods. The nutrients are kept in them and they are likely whole foods: fruits (apples, bananas, grapes, kiwis, pears, dates, etc.); veggies (mini bell peppers, cucumber slices, carrot sticks, etc.); nuts and seeds (peanuts, almonds, sunflower seeds, etc.); and other items like olives, plain yogurt, cheese sticks, bean-and-cheese bowls, hard-boiled eggs, whole grain breads, rice, etc.
The beauty of real food is that it’s naturally satisfying. Instead of eating and then feeling “starved” again 30 minutes later, real food keeps you full. This is because of the water, fiber, fat or protein in it.
An apple, for example, has water and fiber as well as some natural sugar that gives energy. It satisfies more than fruit snacks, crackers or even dried apple chips. Unsweetened nut butters or cheese sticks have fat and a little protein that take longer to digest and, again, keeps you fuller, longer.
Kids loaded up on processed foods (aka not-so-real foods), with little bulk from fiber, no water and a lot of salt, will find themselves having difficulty ever feeling satisfied.
Consuming a lot of sugar also increases the hunger mechanism. Extra salt, sugar and crunch also stimulate our brains’ pleasure centers to desire more food, even if we aren’t actually “hungry.”
Giving your child real food with fiber, water, protein and fat at meals can prevent them from feeling ravenous between them. If you’re feeding your kids real food (90% of the time), then they likely are not going to get as ravenously hungry as frequently.
They may eat more at meals but less often in between meals because they’re more satisfied and nourished.
When your kids are actually hungry between meals, by all means give them a snack, but try to keep to the real-food principle.
Give them something to satisfy and nourish their growing bodies. This should keep your kids from coming back 15 minutes later complaining of hunger. It limits the activity to “a snack” (a one-time thing) and not “snacking” (a frustrating, ongoing activity).

Here are some principles to “chew on”:
Start small and gradually. Try swapping out one item at a time instead of overhauling everything at once. Be patient, because change takes time.
Lead by example. Your kid will not eat what you are not eating. Period. I know that my 3-year-old doesn’t shy from healthier options because she has seen Mommy and Daddy eat it happily. Sure, she will never pass up the opportunity for a treat or a chip, but she also accepts and eats the healthy stuff too.
Remember that at home, kids will eat what’s available. If you don’t have it, they can’t have it. This works in two ways. On one hand, if you don’t have the junk food available, younger kids simply can’t access it.
On the other hand, if you don’t have healthier options, then kids can’t access those, either.
Experience has taught me that once kids realize there will be no other food options other than what is provided, the kids who were truly hungry will munch on the healthier snacks I provided.
The ones that were not hungry simply wait for dinner.
Set boundaries. Lead them and don’t be driven by the nagging, whining “wants.” Expect resistance at first and back up your boundaries with methods that work well for your family.
Eat real food at meals, linger when you can, and enjoy food with your kids. As adults, we can be rushed during meal time, and kids can be, too. It is easy for them to want to go back to their toys, technologies or friends.
If they see you slow down and do your best to make meal time enjoyable, then they are more likely to linger longer and eat more real food.
When my daughter was 2, it was not uncommon for her to state she was “done” with her dinner when she decided she didn’t want what I served.
However, when my husband and I tell her she may not be excused and then carry on with our dinner or even read a fun book aloud at the table, she ends up eating and finishing her food.
Give a kid time, boundaries and an enjoyable environment can yield a happier, healthier eater!
Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist (RDN) and owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. She lives in Lebanon with her husband and two kids. Find her at thepantrylab.com or visit her Facebook page by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”