By Christie Caggiani, RDN, LDN, CEDRD
If you’ve ever tried to have a clear and concise conversation with your child after school, you might find it a daunting and nearly impossible task. Typically, you will find their attention, energy and desire to recount the day stretched thin, and much of that is simply because their bodies have run out of fuel. If it’s been at least 3 hours since their last meal or snack, or their previous amount of food was small, rest assured it is time for them to eat. They need a snack.
As Ellyn Satter so beautifully explains in her Division of Responsibility, one of the parental roles in the feeding relationship is to “provide regular meals and snacks”. This provides stability and the reassurance that food will always be available, thereby allowing children to develop a regular rhythm of hunger and fullness signals which will serve them well throughout their life. As they trust that we will provide food in a regular and timely manner, they can best develop a sense of trusting themselves and their internal signals.
Snacks, however, have many stigmas and much confusion abounds as we try to determine the “best way” to provide them to our kids. Here are some suggestions that may answer a few of your questions:
- Snacks are typically best thought of as little meals, not a single stand-alone item. Our culture has branded certain categories as “snack foods”, however anything you would serve at a meal could feasibly be a snack and will undoubtedly be more satisfying than a single-serve package of baked crackers! How about a slice of leftover veggie pizza and some grapes?
- Include two or three foods from amongst: whole grains, protein, dairy, fruits, vegetables, and fats. Make certain to also offer some ‘fun foods’, and pair them with foods that have a little staying power, such as chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk. Having foods with a higher fat content will hold them longer, and create greater satisfaction.
- Since all foods can be part of a balanced eating relationship, I tend to recommend buying full-sized bags of products (chips, crackers, cookies), rather than 100-calorie individual versions. Not only does this save you some money, it most importantly avoids all of the subtle messages that we give our kids by placing “calories” as part of a food decision. Have you ever had a 100-calorie bag of anything? Were you completely and utterly satisfied after finishing it? If you wanted another one, did you feel like you “shouldn’t”? In my experience, they leave us hanging, wishing we had more. There is nothing magical about that number “100”, except that it’s an effective marketing strategy. By focusing on the number, we have a much harder time listening to our tummies and the signals that tell us if we are still hungry or comfortably satisfied. Instead, present these foods on a plate or in a serving bowl, allowing kids to fill their own plate and gauge the food amounts to their hunger levels. For snacks you need to pack, keep some reusable snack containers on hand and make certain to include enough so that they can eat sufficiently.
- A snack is not a treat, not a reward, not withheld in a punishing manner, not conditional. It’s simply a consistent part of a normal day between meals. It is just food.
- Have your kids sit at a table for snacks (without TV, Instagram, or homework!), allowing them to better listen to their bodies and know when they’re satisfied, (not to mention the fact that running around the house is dangerous and messy if done while eating!). If your child needs to go straight from school to a practice, event or appointment, make certain to have packed a few snack options, and give him time to fully taste and enjoy before running out of the car.
- Sit down and keep your child company, listening to your own body’s signals of hunger or thirst. Snack time is designed to relax and regroup. Take a quick minute to breathe, stretch and transition from the busy day. Don’t create a stressful conversation about the hours of homework they have yet to face! Our children are watching us always, and modeling consistent snack and re-charge time is helpful for their development, as we as for our energy and patience.
- Try to give at least two hours and not longer than 3½ -4 hours between a snack and the next meal. For example, if dinner is at 6:00, aim to have snack time completed by 4:00, in time for your child to get hungry again by the meal. In the meantime, make certain your little one has caught up on their water intake, adding in some fresh fruit, ice cubes or cucumbers for a little flavor and fun.
- If your child is truly not hungry, they won’t eat. They can then eat at the upcoming meal – no grazing later on as the meal approaches.
- When your kids are older, they can begin to make some choices about snacks, within the guidelines that you’ve demonstrated. Remember to keep them planning and eating at a generally consistent time.
If you maintain the reliable consistency of meals and snacks, including a variety of foods, your child will regulate and be able to trust their body’s signals of hunger and fullness. Happy snacking!
Ellyn Satter, Child of Mine: Feeding with Love and Good Sense (n.p.: Bull, 2000), http://www.amazon.com/Child-Mine-Feeding-Revised-Updated/dp/0923521518/ref=pd_bxgy_b_img_y/185-4852629-9299211.“Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility in Feeding,” Ellyn Satter Institute, 2014, http://ellynsatterinstitute.org/dor/divisionofresponsibilityinfeeding.php.