I love talking with parents about snacks. We all approach food in different ways, shaped by our own upbringing, relationship with food, and the nutrition information we’ve gathered. Elizabeth’s post last week about on-the-go summer snack ideas got me thinking: What are the most helpful tips to keep in mind when approaching snacks with children? People have certain images that they think of when they hear the word “snack.” I find, many people think of “snacks” as particular foods, such as crackers and chips. Others, when they hear the word “snack,” they think of “snacking,” a verb that seems to mean mindlessly eating between meals. We have a fast-paced culture that often doesn’t support the idea of taking the time to stop and re-fuel and, for many, snacks can be an afterthought.
However, snacks are important and can support our children in growing in their eating competence. Snacks, or mini-meals, are often needed for growing bodies (and adult bodies, too!). They can be a way to keep energy levels up and provide opportunities to try new foods. Parents can approach snacks in a way that fuels children’s high energy needs and “doesn’t ruin their dinner.”
5 Snack Tips for Kids (and Adults, too!):
1. Prioritize Sit Down Snacks: It’s important for food to be given a certain amount of time and energy. Food is one of our 5 basic needs and oftentimes falls to the bottom of our to-do list. Snacks do not need to take long, but it’s important to stop and sit down and enjoy refueling while not doing other things. This helps children retain their innate ability to be intuitive eaters. They can listen to their hunger and fullness if food is prioritized. This can be at a park, “Let’s sit down for a minute and have a snack.” or at the swimming pool this summer, “Come sit on your towel and have something to eat.”
2. Consider Timing: It’s important to think through the timing of meals and snacks. Many children do well, fueling up every 2-4 hours. To encourage eating a variety of foods, it’s important for children to arrive at meals and snacks hungry. It’s like going to the grocery store hungry, everything looks good and it’s hard to stick to the list. If we arrive at a meal hungry, we’re more likely to eat a variety of foods to meet our energy needs. On the other hand, if a well-balanced snack is close to a meal time or children “graze” between meals, it can interfere with food acceptance. By having meals and snacks every 2-4 hours, you are providing a structure to assist your kids in arriving to eating times hungry but not famished. For many, lunch is around 12:00 pm and dinner is around 6:00 pm. With 6 or more hours between these two meals, an afternoon snack around 3:00 pm becomes really important. This need is compounded when there are afterschool activities between lunch and dinner. To meet high energy needs of growing children, an afternoon snack may be the size of a second lunch.
3. Pair Protein and Carbohydrates: The 3 macronutrients, carbohydrates, protein, and fat, each affect our energy levels at different rates after eating. Carbohydrates give us quick energy, and depending on the amount eaten, provide energy for the next 30 – 60 min. Fruits, vegetables and starches provide carbohydrates. Protein takes longer than carbohydrates to empty out of our stomach and doesn’t give us immediate energy. Protein kicks in when carbohydrates fall off and provides more long lasting energy. Yogurt, milk, cheese, meats, nuts, eggs, and beans contain protein. Lastly, dietary fat provides the most long-lasting energy. When we include f at in a snack, the snack can stick with us for 3-4 hours, again depending on the amount eaten. Many of the protein-rich foods such as nuts, cheese, yogurt, nut butters, eggs, and meats also contain fat. So, if you pair a protein/fat rich food with a carbohydrate rich food, such as apple and peanut butter, cheese and fruit, or trail mix, you have a mini-meal with long lasting energy. Check out Elizabeth’s post for more great ideas.
4. Offer New Foods at Snack Time: Do you have a picky eater and feel frustrated with the lack of food acceptance at dinner time? Snacks are a great time to offer new foods. Sometimes us parents can get in a rut of easily accepted foods (think fishy crackers) at snack times. Instead, we can capitalize on snack times by offering new or not readily accepted foods. I think dinner is often elevated to a higher status in our minds than other eating times. We expect children to try new foods and eat the largest amount of food at dinner. Dinner can be tough for young children. Dinner is close to bedtime and their fatigue may play a role in not eating very much and not trying new foods. It’s typical for young children not to eat a lot at dinner time, they are tired and have eaten enough at their other eating times. Knowing this, it may make sense to expose children to new or not as accepted foods at other eating times of the day and snack time can be a great time to experiment in a low pressure way.
5. Keep it Easy: These suggestions are meant to make things easier not more complicated. I’m a big fan of keeping food simple. We need to spend some time thinking, preparing and eating food, but it doesn’t need to take up all of our time. I keep snacks fairly simple at my house. I loved Elizabeth’s suggestions, because they are quick and take little prep time. My favorite snack is apple with peanut butter (we do sunflower butter at out house because my oldest daughter has a nut and peanut allergy). Look for a snack ideas download in the coming weeks that we’re working on to share new and easy snack ideas with you!