Until recently, I thought I had a handle on parenthood. My husband and I had emerged victorious, if a little bedraggled, from the protracted diaper armageddon. At five and seven, our daughters have passable manners, an appetite for outdoor adventures, healthy limits on screen time, and only a single broken bone between them. I'm not the best mother of the best-behaved children on the planet, but I'm doing alright.
Then I got called out for snacking.
It was late on a weekday afternoon, and I was watching my older daughter's tennis lesson. Twenty minutes in, her attention began to wane and she began to flop listlessly about the court. Soon, I knew, she would start to whine. I fished through my backpack for the energy bar or nuts I usually keep on hand but turned up only sticky wrappers and a few date pits. I called on a mother I didn't know sitting nearby. "Excuse me," I whispered hopefully. "Do you have any snacks?"
The woman swiveled around, her face pinched with scorn. "Snacks?" she hissed, as though I'd asked her for a snort of cocaine. "Kids don't need so many snacks! I stopped bringing food for her when she was four!" My cheeks reddened and I scrunched down in my seat, watching her daughter, who looked to be about nine, thwack the ball with joyless determination. I'd thought I was being virtuous by staving off my daughters' hunger with dried fruits and nuts, but apparently I've been unwittingly contributing to a nationwide snacking epidemic among children.
According to a 2010 study from the University of North Carolina, 98 percent of children in the U.S. snack at least once a day, a jump from 74 percent in 1978. They now consume nearly 600 calories, or 27 percent of their daily intake, from snacks. The content of their between-meal noshing has changed, too: Salty chips and crackers have replaced fresh fruits and veggies, sugary fruit juices or sports drink have edged out milk. All of which have been linked to the rise in childhood obesity, which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports has more than doubled in 30 years. In 2015, more than one-third of children ages six to 19 were overweight or obese.
As parents, it's easy to get sucked into the snacking trap. We live in mortal fear of our babies' and toddlers' meltdowns and learn to ward them off with a well-timed cheese stick or apple slice. Preschools send out elaborate twice-daily snack schedules. Grocery stores sell individually packaged treats. "There's simply more food available more of the time," says nutritionist Maryann Jacobsen, author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School and the blog, Raise Healthy Eaters. As our children grow, we condition them—and ourselves—to believe that food is the cure-all to almost any behavioral problem, an emotional crutch, an antidote to boredom, an easy fix that's always within arm's reach. No wonder our kids have become round-the-clock grazers.
My daughters are active and healthy, but they still chow mindlessly and maddeningly between meals almost everyday. They'll leave berries and yogurt in their bowls at breakfast and an hour later complain of hunger. It's my own fault. My approach is willy-nilly at best: I send them up the ski mountain with energy bars in their pockets, freely offer yogurt-covered pretzels on river trips, and bribe them with penny candy and popsicles to do their swimming lessons in the lake. Judging from the factory's worth of sugar they consumed in the last six weeks alone, it doesn't surprise me that summer is prime time for snacking. According to a 2015 study conducted by Active Living Research, children gain more weight during summer break, when eating is unstructured and often unsupervised, than they do during the rest of the year.
Out on the tennis court, my daughter began to perk up at the prospect of whaling a few forehands. That's when the woman turned around and shoved a small red tin in my direction. "I do have this," she said with a dismissive shrug. An Altoid! That's when my embarrassment turned to indignation. If a breath mint is her idea of sports nutrition, I thought smugly, clearly she's not hiking up mountains or skiing down them with her daughter. (Parent shaming brings out the worst in all of us.)
The truth is, active, growing kids need snacks. Maintaining steady blood sugar helps children stay focused, keeps them from bonking during high-intensity sports, aid in muscle recovery afterwards, and increase endurance. You don't need to go cold turkey on snacking to curb unhealthy grazing. You just need to have a plan.
1. Schedule Snack Time
"The hows of snacking are more important than the whats," says Jacobsen, who recommends establishing regular snack times, just like meals. "It's really about creating a predictable structure so that kids know what to expect and when."
For active school-age kids, three meals and an afternoon snack should suffice; it may help with little children to write it out. Whenever possible, offer snacks at the table, which encourages mindful eating. When you're on the go, between school and a soccer game or en route to a mountain bike ride, put a pause in the action, whether on the sidelines or at a picnic table, to sit for snack time.
"We know that when we're more focused on eating, we eat healthier, " says Jacobsen, who admits "there are exceptions. If you're in the car sometimes, that's OK. But if you're so busy that you can't stop for snack time, it may be time to reevaluate your routine." If kids come home ravenous from sports, don't be afraid to be flexible and move up your dinner schedule to feed them earlier.
2. Go for Variety
"Snacking is really just a mini meal," explains Jacobsen, so you'll want to take a similar approach when planning what you serve. "I try to have to two to three food groups present and use snacks to fill the gaps of what they might not have gotten at meal times."
Think whole grains, fruits, vegetables, protein, low-fat or dairy alternatives, and healthy fats. Some classic go-to's: yogurt with nuts and fruit; quesadilla with cheese and a side of fruit; homemade fruit-and-veggie muffins; DIY trail mix with whole grain cereals, nuts, and dried fruit; homemade kale chips; apples with almond butter; and fruit-and-veggie smoothies that can be frozen and served as popsicles. Don't beat yourself up about buying packaged snacks when you're on the go, on the trail, or in the backcountry. When we go hiking with our girls, five and seven, we stash to low-sugar Kind Bars (look for the ones with 5 grams or less) and cheese sticks served with no-sugar-added applesauce. As for the amount, let your child determine when she's had enough, but make it early enough so that they have room for the next meal.
3. Fruit Is Always a Yes
A 2013 study in the journal Pediatrics confirms that when children eat healthy snacks like fruit and veggies instead of salty chips or pretzels, they're sated sooner and consume 72 percent fewer calories. Even if it's not officially snack time and your kids are whining to eat, offer them a banana or apple instead; this discourages mindless grazing and eating out of boredom. "Fruit is nutrient dense and usually won't fill them up too much before a meal," says Jacobsen. "If they're not hungry for fruit, they're probably not hungry."
4. Get Kids Involved
"Parents are doing so much for their children nowadays, but as they get older, they have to learn to eat healthily on their own," says Jacobsen. As kids get older and reach school age, you can begin to teach them to make their own snacks with your help. "This helps them learn their food groups," she adds. With pre-packaged foods like energy bars, teach them how to read nutrition labels and recognize sugar and protein content.
5. Don't Be Afraid to Say No or Not Now
"It's OK if kids are hungry between meals," Jacobsen says. If your son's team doles out snacks after a soccer practice but it's not snack time, let him bring the food home and figure out how and when it might fit into the snacking schedule. "We've become so afraid to say no to our kids, but there's a way to do it that's healthy."
As they get older, experiment with involving them in the decision-making, by allowing them to decide whether or not to eat that post-soccer cupcake. "By turning it on them, they learn the consequences. It's OK if they don't eat a meal because they ate too soon before dinner. Later, when you say no, or they say no, they'll feel empowered by how much they're learning rather than deprived." In the end, says Jacobsen, it's about knowing your child and being strategic but flexible."You don't want to be a drill sergeant."
Hear that, tennis mom?