Snacks and their association with children have had an up and down reputation over the years. Many years ago, some of us may have heard our moms admonish any type of snacking with the warning “you’ll spoil your dinner!” Snacking’s reputation has improved as nutritionists recommend healthy snacks in between meals to supplement healthy eating and prevent overindulgence. Snacking can be nutritious fuel for active kids as long as the right snack choices are made. But, with the proliferation of prepackaged snacks, sugary drinks, sodas, coffee and an increased on-the-go lifestyle, kids are often choosing more unhealthy snacks to feed their hunger throughout the day.
What the experts say:
98% of children snack at least once a day compared to 74% in 1978, according to a University of North Carolina study. And, what they do snack on is most often salty chips, desserts, sports drinks and fruit juices laden with sugar — equaling nearly 27% or 600 calories of their daily food consumption. Gone from popularity are healthy options like fruits, veggies, water or milk, the study reported.
Extra and unhealthy snacking becomes even more worrisome when we consider these sobering statistics from the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. In 2018, 18.5% of all children ages 2 to 19 were considered obese. Even more worrisome is that Hispanic and black children are more at risk for obesity than non- Hispanic white children.
Snacking can be part of a kid’s healthy lifestyle if done right. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics recommends that children up to age 19 should eat every three to four hours to support an active lifestyle for their growing bodies. Younger children should eat three meals and two snacks a day, while adolescents should eat three meals and one snack (two snacks may be recommended if they are particularly active).
When should you let kiddos snack?
Snacks should be offered a few hours after the last meal but not too close to the next meal.
“Snacking is essential for children to ensure that their energy and nutrient needs are met,” said Lakisha Crumpler, RD, LD/N, Youth Programs Specialist in the University of Florida/IFAS Extension Family Nutrition Program. “The type of snacks that a child is given or allowed to choose from is most important. Parents and guardians should ensure that snack items are not high in fat, sugar and sodium.”
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends avoiding processed foods as snacks as much as possible.
“Processed foods do not have many nutrients and often have a lot of added sugar and salt. In addition, children may become hungry faster after eating processed foods,” the AAP warns.
The AAP advises using snack time as a way to up fruit and vegetable consumption. At home, keep fresh fruits and vegetables visible and accessible on the counter or in your refrigerator. Look for healthy and balanced snacks that provide a good mix of protein and fiber that will keep your child feeling full, according to the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (see attached sidebar).
What about stopping unnecessary snacking? Parents should avoid offering kids a fun snack to keep them busy or as a frequent reward for good behavior. For children who want to munch all day, the AAP recommends looking deeper into the “why” of snacking. If you are confident that your child is getting three balanced meals and one to two healthy snacks each day, then there should be no reason for extra snacks.
Is your child just bored or using food to fill feelings of low self- esteem, loneliness or stress? Offer fun alternatives to snacking like going outside for bike rides or sports, practicing arts and crafts or playing board games.
“Children are rapidly growing and always expending energy. Balanced meals, which include consuming foods from all food groups along with nutrient dense snacks, may curtail excessive snacking,” Crumpler said.
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