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In the U.S., our kids snack all the time.
Kids eat snacks at daycare, pre-school, mom’s groups and on playdates.
They snack in their strollers, in the car, on the playground and after sports.
At school, young kids have a mid-morning or afternoon snack.
At my kids’ elementary school, some parents pack lunch along with several snacks like “veggie” sticks, crackers, pretzels and fruit-flavored gummies.
Starting in the first grade, kids can also buy “snack,” in the cafeteria. About 15 minutes after purchasing their lunch, they’re called up to get cookies, ice cream and chips.
Of course, there are also after-school snacks and after-dinner snacks.
Snacking is often seen as a healthy habit because it balances blood sugar, staves off hunger and prevents overeating, but it’s often used to keep kids occupied and happy.
Plus, experts say kids are snacking too much—a trend that’s responsible for the one-third of children who are overweight or obese.
According to a March 2010 study in Health Affairs, kids reach for snacks 3 times a day and consume up to 600 calories from foods like chips, crackers and candy. What’s more, the largest increase in snacking over the years is among kids between ages 2 and 6, the same study found.
So you may have wondered, like I did, do kids need snacks in the first place? And if so, what is a healthy snack and how often should kids snack? Here, answers to those questions and more.
Do kids need snacks?
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), snacks are not only an opportunity to support your child’s diet, but they can make it even healthier.
Most kids don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables every day anyway, but snack time can be a way to pack in more.
Snacks also give kids plenty of opportunities to learn what they like to eat—
and what they don’t—and chances to choose healthy foods and eventually become adventurous eaters.
Some experts however, challenge whether kids even need snacks in the first place.
“When I was a child no one snacked mid-morning and we all survived just fine. I don’t even remember being especially hungry. In other words, snacking is a philosophy. It’s an approach to eating. It’s a lifestyle. It’s not a necessity,” Dina Rose, PhD, author of It’s Not About The Broccoli says in this blog post.
Another drawback to non-stop snacking is that kids are less likely to be hungry when mealtime rolls around. If they’re snacking on junk food, it can displace calories from healthy foods which they’re more likely to get at meals.
What is a healthy snack?
Surprisingly, there’s actually no static definition of a snack. Research shows it can be defined according to the time of day, type of food, amount of food, and location of where the food is consumed.
Generally speaking however, a kids’ snack is a small amount of food that satisfies hunger between meals and a way to add nutrition and increase fruit and vegetable intake in their diets.
With so many snack food labels calling attention to health claims like all-natural, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, high in fiber, made with real fruit, no sugar added and sugar-free, it can be difficult to choose a healthy snack for your kids.
Although it’s not always realistic to avoid processed foods, snacks in bags, boxes and packages are usually high in sugar, sodium and artificial ingredients, and low in fiber and protein and overall poor sources of nutrition.
A good rule of thumb: stick to whole foods and nutrient-dense options. Some good choices include:
- Fruits and vegetables (fresh or frozen)
- Nuts and nut butters
- Beans and legumes
- Hummus, bean dip or guacamole
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Green smoothies (homemade, otherwise read labels)
- Homemade, low-sugar muffins, energy bites and other baked goods.
How often should kids snack?
Just as there’s no clear-cut definition of a snack, there’s no hard and fast rule about when and how many times a day kids should have snacks.
“A good rule of thumb is to offer snacks a few hours after one meal ends and about 1-2 hours before the next meal begins,” Jo Ellen Shields, MED, RD, LD, co-author of Healthy Eating, Healthy Weight for Kids and Teens, said in this article.
According to Jill Castle, RDN, in addition to 3 meals a day, school-aged kids need 1 to 2 snacks a day and teens need one snack a day unless they’re athletes or having a growth spurt.
When offering snacks, you should also pay attention to portion sizes so the snack doesn’t turn into a meal.