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Kids and snacks can make for a tricky combination

Kids and food.
It is a tricky topic.
There are a whole host of issues that surround kids and eating: allergies, pickiness, diabilites…the list goes on and on!
I won’t attempt to plumb the depth of all kids’ eating issues nor will I pretend to be the chief expert on such matters. My child, after all, is only 2 years old. There is a lot I haven’t encountered when it comes to feeding my child.
However, I have had enough kid experience under my belt to have seen an interesting pattern: Kids and snacks are a big deal. There does seem to be a common frustration among parents who experience kids always nagging to have a snack. It can make errands inconvenient (or a battle), the car a crumbly mess and dinner preparation 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 so everyone is more satisfied and happy?
It is difficult for kids to not believe snacks are their birthright when, 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 child is truly hungry. In many cases they (and us adults too) have lost the feeling of what real, healthy hunger 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 such as 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. There seems to be a heightened sense of “need” for a snack and a large variety of refined foods that are offered.
It is true that young kids are growing rapidly and may experience more hunger in between meals but there is a way to determine how much extra an average child needs each day. First, make sure they are overall healthy, per your doctor. The doctor will be able to discuss where your child is on the growth curve, whether they are behind or ahead.
If your kid is “average,” the primary way I suggest to determine how much and when he or she needs a snack is to feed them “real food” and then witness what happens.
Real food means unrefined foods. The nutrients stay 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 ’n cheese bowls, hard boiled eggs, whole grain breads, rice, etc.
The beauty of real food is that it is naturally satisfying. Instead of eating it and then, 30 minutes later, feeling “starved” again, 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 meals. If you are feeding your kids real food (90 percent of the time) then they likely are not going to get ravenously hungry as frequently. They may eat more at meals but less often during the day because they are more satisfied and nourished.
When your kids are hungry between meals, by all means give them a snack, but try to keep to the real food principle. Give them something that will 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. Change takes time.
♦ Lead by example. Your kid will not eat what you are not eating. Period. I know that my 2-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 is 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 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 option other than what is provided, those that were truly hungry will munch on the healthier snacks I provided. The ones that are 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 can be rushed during meal time, 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.
It is not uncommon for my 2-year-old to announce that she is “done” with her dinner when she has decided she doesn’t want what I have 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, nine times out of 10 she finishes her food.
Give a kid time and boundaries in an enjoyable environment can yield a happier, healthier eater!
– Cathryn Arndt is a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist who owns a nutrition counseling business called The Pantry Lab LLC. She lives in the Lebanon area with her husband and toddler. Find her at thepantrylab.com or visit her Facebook page by searching under “Dietitian Cathryn.”