Over the past 20 years, the amount of calories consumed by children from snacks has increased by 30%. Kids eat a third more calories everyday from snacks! What kids snack on certainly can reflect how their diet is shaped and how they grow. Plain and simple: snacks make us fatter by packing in lots of calories in relatively small bits of food, the definition of “calorie dense” foods. They also discourage our eating of things like fruit and veggies because they fill us all up. One recent study found it was our over-consumption of snacks more than our under-consumption of fruits and veggies that is getting us into trouble.

Beware of the foods in red/orange/yellow packaging; these are generally foods that are not very good for you. Research finds that these colors make you feel hungry, thus advertisers use the colors to increase the likelihood that you purchase (and eat) junk food. Think about food packaging like you think about the threat level at the airport. Red and orange are generally a no-go. Steering clear of this part of the ROYGBIV (red.orange.yellow.green.blue.indigo.violet) food isle is important. As snacks make up more of our entire diet, what we choose to snack on may be as important as what we make for dinner.

Whine with your snack?
Whine-fest 2010 continues in our house. Beautiful. I’ve gotten out my baton and I’m now conducting from a perch in the kitchen. All those years of band (yes, I played the oboe) and weekly orchestra practice are finally paying off. Play date sign-up for whine-fest in our house will be online soon. Guest conductors accepted.

This week, the majority of whining has been centered on the struggle for selection of food. F has always been a good eater; now that he’s 3, he has decidedly increased his strong opinions and whine-ions about food. His well-constructed opinions and whines mostly represent strong dislikes. Even the mention of the L word (lunch) or D word (dinner) or B word (you get it) this week set off alarms and triggered the whine. At the grocery yesterday, I folded under whine fatigue and let him have a fruit bar, then an organic cookie (somehow the mention of ‘organic’ made me feel better about it). A total foolio mistake, but I was tired and it was all I could do to make it through to the checkout. In the bulk food isle, F wanted more and I refused. He started to declare “but, Mommeee, I don’t like lunch.” I thought I was easily digging my way out explaining we were going home to have dinner, not lunch. F: “No, no, no, no, I don’t like dinner.” We’ve changed the names of meals to accommodate. So for “dinner snack” last night, F joined us and ate his meal. This genius re-wording won’t last long.

All F wants are “snacks.” He, of course, associates snacks with the high-calorie, energy dense, low nutritive foods most toddlers and preschool children adore. Think things in stick form, bar shape, “go” packaged, or pre-packaged little morsels in a crinkly silver package. This junk is sometimes disguised as good food with labels like “organic,” “healthy,” or “perfect for tots.”  And yes, it all works on me, too. I’ll write more about research on organic foods versus non-organic, food choices and television advertising but in my attempt to stay on target today, I will join F and opine about snacks.

In the US, snacking has transformed the way children eat and get their nutrition. There is an enormous list of the why’s to the rise of snacking.  Some examples worth thinking about:

    • The introduction of processed foods in the 1970’s transformed what we eat from fresh to packaged food
      • The introduction of processed foods in the 1970’s transformed what we eat from fresh to packaged food
      • TV advertising of snacks directed at kids increases their desire for snack foods
      • The challenge for busy families to find time to sit down and eat meals together
      • Watching TV during meals in households
      • Ubiquitous availability (they are everywhere!) and easy access to snack foods
      • It is okay to be a little hungry. Dr Grow says, “Teaching kids it’s okay to get a little bit hungry (not ravenous) and work up an appetite for a regular meal” is a healthy way to learn to eat right.
      • It’s our worst fear that our kids will starve. It’s almost an instinct to offer and offer and offer food all day. Our kids won’t starve, especially if we offer 3 meals and 2 healthy snacks daily.
      • Red/Orange/Yellow packaging is dangerous. These colors are known to make you hungry and eat more. Advertisers know this! Think about leading fast-food chains, junk food, candy bars and soda containers. Red/Orange/Yellow is threat level alert for high-calorie foods that often have little nutritive value.
      • Snacking isn’t going away and can still be a great way to eat. Nutritionists continue to instruct that eating small meals, frequently, is a healthy way to live and eat. So relax in our reality of eating snacks but think about improving the ingredients when you can.
      • Think of snacks as “mini-meals” of fresh, high-quality food when you have time to make them. Dr Grow says, “Sharing food at all those parties/events is part of our cultural bonding.  It’s just that the quality of what we offer has deteriorated over time.”
      • Avoid letting your children watch TV programs with advertisements. Snack ads spur children to eat more. When you can, choose television On-Demand or on DVD or online where advertisements for snack foods may be minimized. TV ads really will increase your child’s consumption of snack foods.
      • Go to the grocery store AFTER a meal, not before mealtime when you’re hungry like my mistake. Shopping when you’re full and satiated will encourage you to purchase fresh, whole foods as opposed to snack foods.
      • Eat as a family when you can.
      • Serve your kids 3 meals a day.
      • Work on what you offer. Have a goal for 50% of the calories your child is offered coming from fruit and veggies.
      • Never serve a snack after dinner.  Your child doesn’t need extra food to sleep
      • Don’t let your kids snack while watching TV or any activity that lends them distracted. Before you know it, you’re halfway through Sesame Street or Dora and the bag of crackers is gone.
      • Good food can feel good. This is not about restricting food, just shifting what is offered.

I gave into the goldfish cracker about 1-2 years ago. Major mistake. This slip haunts me weekly when F suggests them as a great snack idea. A pattern I don’t know how to break. My friend, Dr. Mollie Grow a pediatrician, mom, and expert on overweight/obesity (whew!) says, “One thing I think is really valuable to think about is not losing your good eating habits during snacks. I like the idea of ‘mini-meals’—choose the same things you would feel good about eating at a meal, just smaller amounts (cut up fruits/veggies, cheese, nuts, quarter of a sandwich, or any whole foods.”  We used to do well by these rules in or house, but currently F has retracted his interest in fruits, veggies, or basically any other whole food. He can spot their goodness from across the room.

This week there was an article in the New York Times where a busy mom, Jennifer Steinhauer, details her experience providing never-ending snacks. My kids are too young to know the routine of constant school party–>to–>sports game–>to–>“down time” snacking in front of TV–>to–>after dinner snacking. But I know those of you with school-aged kids know this. Snacks are not only everywhere in stores, they are expected everywhere kids get together.

Reconstructing and mastering the science of snacking:

One of my favorite quotes from Ellyn Satter, pediatric nutritionist:
“The secret to feeding a healthy family is to love good food, trust yourself, and share that love and trust with your child. When the joy goes out of eating, nutrition suffers.”