A pediatrician’s tips for your kids’ snacking habits

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Parents often ask me about snacks for their children once they are eating table food. Should they even give them snacks? If so, what kinds are good for them, and how often? In general, after age one I recommend three kid-size meals and 1 to 2 snacks to help them get their daily nutritional requirements. Try not to stress or obsess at each feeding about them eating all that you serve.  Your job is to provide the food; your child’s is to decide how much to eat. Instead, look at the nutrition content your child eats for the week rather than just daily. Here are some more tips to get the most health benefit out of your child’s snacks.

Cut out the juice and instead serve whole fruit. Juice is high in concentrated sugar, low in fiber, as well as causes significant fluctuations in glucose and insulin levels.  Making whole fruit more accessible by cutting it up and even leaving it in containers or grab and go bags will increase the likelihood it will be gobbled up. A little fruit and veggie preparation for the week can make a huge difference in the amount eaten. Some suggestions: melon balls, tangerine slices, a fruit kebab skewer, even a glass of berries with a dollop of yogurt on top. Eating the whole foods instead of juicing will ensure your child feels full and satisfied until it’s time for the next meal.

Snacking is an activity. Be mindful, present and enjoy your snack completely. Don’t snack on the go or even in front of the television. This mindless/distracted eating often results in excess processed junk foods high in fat and sugar, low in fiber and important nutrients.  Also, studies show eating while watching TV results in consuming more empty calories and still feeling hungry. I suggest, if you are having a snack, savor it by chewing slowly, paying attention, sitting at the table and, if possible, don’t multitask.

Think outside the conventional snack bag I tell parents to think of a snack like a small meal. A snack is just another way to get the added fruits/veggies and nutrients kids need. So instead of assuming “snack” means a bag of chips or chocolate bar, you can serve hard boiled eggs, peanut butter and crackers, turkey rolled up, waffle with fruit spread, a simple homemade mix of whole grain cereal, nuts, craisins, and dark choc chips. Also, kids love to “dip” using dressing, salsa, hummus or yogurt with their sliced raw peppers, carrots, and cucumbers. If in a rush, and no time to spare, a glass of milk can be a snack too, Milk is high in protein, calcium, vitamin D as well as potassium and B vitamins.

Don’t confuse boredom for hunger. Often kids say they are hungry when in reality they are bored or don’t know what to do or play. If your child just ate and is whining to eat again, offer some water and then try to coax them into an activity. Surprisingly, if you initiate play with them for a few minutes: for example coloring, or building blocks, they will become engaged, and you can fade yourself out as they continue to play independently. By not over snacking and eating out of boredom, your child will have a healthy appetite at the next meal time.

Daily snacks are different than “desserts.” A dessert or treat is usually thought of as an after meal food that may not be so healthy or nutritious. Desserts/ treats are inevitable and my advice, it’s OK to indulge on an intermittent basis. I tell my patients that total avoidance of cakes, cookies, and ice cream is not necessary; in fact, I see it backfire all the time. Children who never eat any junk food or a less than healthy treat often overindulge whenever the opportunity arises. So instead, embrace the moment and allow your child to enjoy the dessert. I also advise against labeling foods good or bad. Indulge in the birthday cake on occasion and savor the deliciousness.  But remember portion size is key, and you can control that amount (rarely are seconds necessary) when serving to the family. Also, if most of the time, you eat healthfully, provide a wide variety of high nutrient snacks, then your child over time will develop a healthy relationship with food.

Jennifer Trachtenberg is a pediatrician and can be reached at Ask Dr. Jen.

Image credit: Shutterstock.com

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