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Don’t Be Consumed by the Snack Culture

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Sports are a great way for kids to burn off a few calories, right? That’s what I always thought until my son started playing soccer. During his games, he did get in a decent amount of running around the field, but it’s what happened at halftime and after the game that derailed the health benefits of the sport. Each week, families took turns bringing snacks. When I played soccer several years ago, that meant orange slices and a small cup of Gatorade. But today’s standards are different. Sure, oranges or some other easily digestible fruit would be doled out during halftime. But, so was a 12- or even 20-ounce bottle of Gatorade. When the game ended and everyone shook hands, they also received a package of brownie bites, a cookie or some other high-carb, high-calorie treat.

Don't be Consumed by the Snack Culture

I decided to break down the numbers and see if I was making a bigger deal of things than was warranted. For my svelte 40-pound 6-year-old, his soccer efforts would burn about 64 calories per game. A 12-ounce bottle of Gatorade has 74 calories. A package of brownie bites is a whopping 295 calories! With those numbers, perhaps I should consider signing him up for a few more teams, minus the snacks.

This example is indicative of the snack culture our children are growing up in. For example, a child can’t play sports without the reward of a sugary treat at the end, or a preschooler must have a package of cheese crackers to sustain her, while grocery shopping.

To get a handle on this snack culture, I spoke with Holly Platz, registered dietitian and mother of two preschool-aged boys. “I think in many ways we have definitely become a snack culture,” she said. “Snacks are almost expected at certain events or excursions like your example with soccer games. I have experienced that same thing at T-ball games. And T-ball is not the most active sport! Every parent was expected to bring a snack and drink after every game, which usually consisted of Kool-Aid or Gatorade, and popsicles or fruit snacks. I think I disappointed the kids a bit when I presented them with mini-bottles of water.”

Holly went on to explain that this propensity for snacking could be teaching undesirable eating habits. “This habit of excessive snacking at events or functions may be where kids begin to learn to eat in the absence of hunger. Child-driven snacking starts between the ages of five and nine years of age. This is typically the time when ‘learned’ snacking begins or eating in the absence of hunger. It’s important to distinguish why your child may be asking for a snack. Is he eating because of boredom, habit or growth spurt? Was he more active today? This will help children to identify true hunger verses eating when not actually hungry.”

Holly explained that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends three main meals with two snacks a day for the average toddler and preschooler. For school-aged children, three meals with one afternoon snack should suffice them.

“What the snack consists of and how much is being served is very important,” Holly said. “Research has shown that snacks can contribute up to one-third of daily calories. In addition, kids eat more when served more. Serving age-appropriate portion sizes along with nutrient dense foods helps to fill in nutritional gaps. Redefining what a snack ‘should’ be is also key. Fruit snacks, chips, pretzels, cookies and crackers seem to be typical snack fare. These types of foods are okay sometimes, however, a snack should be considered a mini-meal that includes at least two foods groups.”

Holly suggested the following for healthier snacking:

Schedule Snacks

Establish set meal and snack times so children know what to expect. Use “the kitchen is closed” policy when excessive snacking becomes an issue. This also helps children to come to the table hungry and to prevent eating in the absence of hunger.

Fill the Gap

Use snacks to help fill nutritional gaps by making them mini-meals with at least two food groups.

Portion Control

Serve age-appropriate portion sizes and let the child choose if and how much he eats, while the parent decides when and what.

Say No to Juice

Avoid juice most of the time as this tends to fill kids up too quickly with mostly empty calories and could prevent them from eating.

Make it a Combo

Offer healthy snack combinations, such as those mentioned below.

While snacking isn’t always a bad thing, it should be age appropriate and nutritional. If you are also concerned about what your child consumes during events like sports, do what we did: speak to the coach. It turns out that the other parents felt the same way, so we changed our snack policy. Each week, one family brought fruit to share during halftime. Drinks and other snacks were the responsibility of each parent. While we wondered what our son would think about the change, he hardly noticed. It turned out that for him playing the game was a bigger reward than receiving a dessert at the end.

Need some healthy snack options? Try these:

  •  Yogurt with fruit and/or nuts
  •  Fresh fruit with cheese
  •  Mini bagel with peanut butter and strawberry or blueberry flavored kefir
  •  Homemade trail mix: nuts, dried fruit, whole grain cereal and mini chocolate chips
  •  Pretzel sticks with cubed cheese, grapes, melon
  •  Raw veggies with hummus, guacamole or yogurt dip
  • Graham crackers spread with peanut butter with banana slices as a “sandwich”

Have you followed me on Pinterest yet? Also, be sure to find me on Instagram at meaganchurch.

{This article first appeared in The Family Magazine of Michiana. Photo credit: ©lolaparis –}


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