Surviving the Snack Attack
Before becoming a parent, I had two expectations: my children would have strictly limited screen time and they would be healthy eaters. In a conversation with my 3-year-old the other day, she told me to “leave my answer in the comments section.”
So clearly we are not living up to my screen time expectation.
But shortly thereafter, I had a moment of parenting pride when I watched my child play a game where she had to sort foods into categories based on their nutrition value. She did a really good job!
Like many young children, she does prefer when foods are plain and separate; however, she will try just about anything. Yet we face a current struggle: snacking.
As a dietitian, I’m aware of what my child is supposed to be eating and how much, and meals in general are well balanced and portioned. If you wonder about the nutrient needs of your children, I encourage you to try the website choosemyplate.gov. It offers basic meal plans that you can personalize by age, gender and activity level.
But since I spend a majority of my time counseling clients in the Balanced Weight Loss program, I’m painfully aware of the importance of establishing a healthy relationship with food. No amount of formal nutrition training can teach you how to get a strong-willed toddler to eat what they are supposed to. No guide to parenting will coax them to eat the right thing at the right time, either, all while maintaining a positive association with healthy eating and battling the rather unhealthy American food culture.
Our food culture includes the perception that “snack food” needs to be salty, sweet or different from what we eat at meals. For me, it’s fairly common to see my daughter take several bites from her well-balanced meal, proclaim she is full and then, only minutes later, ask for a snack.
It’s so common that I’ve really started to evaluate the “snacks” we keep on hand. We have trail mix (with chocolate candies), yogurt in containers covered with popular characters (which she wouldn’t know if we were doing better about screen time), fruit pouches, whole-grain snack crackers (often in fun shapes) and cheese.
After a short contemplation, I could see why these items are so enticing for small children. I would not consider these options to be “bad” as occasional snacks, but with her frequently skipping balanced meals and then loading up on these higher sodium, higher sugar items, I grew concerned.
Our solution to the snack attacks is based more on a mother’s intuition and less on my educational background. It also includes a touch of laziness. For example, my daughter’s favorite lunch is simple:
- Shredded chicken with barbecue sauce
- Whole wheat noodles
- And a glass of milk
I’m not a member of nor do I support the agenda of the “clean plate club” because it discourages listening to natural hunger/satiety cues. But I do expect my daughter to eat a little from each food group.
If one day she eats very little, we simply cover the plate and put it in the refrigerator. When she asks for a snack, I present her the plate, each and every time. In addition, she’s come to find that my husband is the only one nice enough to do any re-heating!
On the days when she eats a good amount of most of the portions on her plate, we take another approach. The one area she’ll often short-changed is the broccoli, because who are we kidding, that is the thing she – along with 99 percent of kids – are most likely to skip. So then the broccoli will get saved and presented each time a snack is requested.
I still keep most of the snacks I mentioned in our home, and if she does well at a meal, and still asks for a snack, we then let her choose. When presented with leftover options, we find she’ll often decline the snack altogether. We also try to limit snacking – or have none – about 90 minutes before we eat, to ensure she is hungry when we sit down for our meal.
Taking a stand on snacking has certainly led to some tantrums, but I am hoping we are instilling an important idea: snacks are meant to supplement our meals by giving our bodies important nutrients when they start to run low.
They’re not just an opportunity to indulge.