“Can I have a snack?”
It may be the season of ghouls and ghosts, but no question haunts parents year-round like the one above. Add in a global pandemic, virtual schooling, and adults trying to work from home, and the everyday chorus of kids craving snack time may feel like a cacophony.
“We're all going through a really difficult time,” says Bettina Elias Siegel, author of Kid Food: The Challenge of Feeding Children in a Highly Processed World. “And kids, like adults, may be using food to alleviate boredom or stress, or simply because they're home more often and snack food is right there, always available to them.”
Siegel says that even before the pandemic, kids were eating more frequently now than in previous generations. But a recent survey found that around one-third of families are now stocking more snack foods and sweets than before the pandemic began. Another study of lockdown eating habits revealed upticks in adolescent inactivity, as well as consumption of highly processed foods.
Parents are right to be concerned. Obesity during childhood has been linked to cardiovascular disease, type 2 diabetes, breathing issues, and even psychological problems, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
And with an influx of Halloween candy looming this week, many parents may now be wondering how they can get a better handle on their little snack monsters.
“There's nothing wrong with snacking, and in fact most children—especially little kids—typically do need to eat between meals,” Siegel says. “The issue really comes down to what kids are eating and how they're eating it.”
The first thing parents need to know is that there’s a physiological explanation for kids' constant hunger, but also for their inevitable fullness when suppertime finally rolls around.
A kid's stomach is about the size of their fist, says Maryann Jacobsen, a family nutrition expert and registered dietician. “So even those harmless Goldfish crackers before dinner can fill it up pretty easily.”
At the same time, all that running, bouncing, and tumbling burns a lot of energy, which means their gas tanks require more frequent refueling, so to speak.
This creates a darned-if-you-do, nagged-if-you-don’t paradox in which parents might feel like they have to choose between keeping kids happy during the day or preserving their appetites for standard mealtimes. But with the right message—and some creative snacking ideas—parents can start to manage those munchies.
Trick or treat?
Halloween is obviously a bit of an outlier when it comes to snacking. After all, when else is it socially acceptable for your child to mow down fistfuls of candy bars? But even this sacred stash of treats can be managed.
First, help kids understand that sweets don’t feed your body much nutrition, says Jacobsen, who’s also the author of How to Raise a Mindful Eater. “So in our house, we usually have one a day, and I let the kids pick it.”
One way to explain this to your kids is to compare the energy they need to a fire. Sugars are like adding a piece of paper to the fire—they flare up for a moment but just as quickly fizzle out. But eating a balanced diet of different foods is like putting logs on the blaze. Each contributes long-lasting energy so the flames can keep burning.
Of course, this doesn’t mean your kids should never eat candy, chips, or other flame-out foods. In fact, Jacobsen doesn’t even like labeling such things as “bad” or even “unhealthy." Instead, she recommends teaching kids that a healthy diet is made up of many different things. And in moderation, even Halloween candy can have its place.
Another effective way to make sure your kids are getting enough fuel but not spoiling their appetite is to manage everyone’s expectations.
For instance, setting a particular time for snacks and the amount of food provided can help cut down on snacking out of boredom and take some of the “Where’s my snack?” attacks out of the day. This can be especially important for children who no longer have a regular schedule from in-person education because of COVID-19.
“It's not like a kid can be in their first-grade class and just bring out a snack,” Jacobsen says. “We need those boundaries around food, that kind of rhythm. There are times we eat, and there are times we don't eat.”
Limits for liquids like milk and juice are also a good idea, Jacobsen says, because many kids might fill up on drinks and not have room for anything else.
Parents can also redefine what constitutes a snack. If you have the time and ability, try to incorporate two to three food groups in a snack, Jacobsen says. Think about combinations like fruit and cheese or crackers, vegetables, and hummus—snacks that pack a bit more nutrition.
“Think of it like a mini-meal,” Jacobsen says. This way, you’re not just quieting a rumbly tummy, but also adding to your child’s caloric intake in a positive way.
Another idea? Try turning snack time into a project.
Kids can make healthy Halloween treats like clementine jack-o’-lanterns and banana ghosts. “These adorably spooky snacks have the added benefit of creating a fun kitchen project to keep little hands busy,” Seigel says.
In the end, Siegel wants parents to remember not to be too hard on themselves.
“Everyone is doing the best they can,” she says. “But there are ways to make it easier on yourself while keeping your kids on a reasonably healthy path, even during the pandemic.”