Snack Fever: Have Young Children’s Eating Habits Changed?

Healthy and tasty snack!
Healthy and tasty snack!

 Snacking Is Part Of A Bigger Problem

Over one third of American children are overweight or obese.  We’ve heard this for so long; the statement has almost lost its impact.

But really – one third?

Not only are overweight children more likely to feel bad about themselves, but they may well be on a path of on-going over-weight and diminished health.

Won’t Young Children “Outgrow” Being Overweight?

Some young children DO grow up and out of being overweight.  But not all.  Children who are overweight are more likely to be overweight adults.  That means one third of our children are more likely to develop diabetes, liver and heart disease, asthma, cancer, sleep apnea, joint problems, and other health conditions.

What Causes Children To Be Overweight?

In addition to larger portion sizes, more processed and high calorie foods – changes in children’s snacking patterns contribute to the hefting of the nation’s children.

This is a short blog, so let’s look at one factor – the snacking – and what caring adults can do to protect children’s health. 

We’re in the midst of a Snack-ademic.

Study Spotlights How Snack Habits have Changed

Barry Popkin and his team from UNC-Chapel Hill tracked the snacking habits of children for 30 years – from 1977 to 2006.  In the March 2010 edition of Health Affairs, this snack-tracking turned up some worrisome trends:

  • 98% of American kids eat about three snacks each day.
  • From 1977 to 2006, snacking has added 168 calories per day to the average child’s diet.
  • Today’s snacks are less nutritious: more salty chips and crackers, more candy.
  • Children drink less milk and eat less fruit.
  • Children drink more sweetened drinks like juice, juice-like drinks, sports drinks, and sodas.

The steepest uptick in snacking was among the 2-6 year old age group.  Not so surprising when we consider how snack time is woven into early childhood events and routines.

Mid-morning, after lunch, late afternoon – children snack at playdates, park visits, preschool, Sunday school…every occasion seems to include SNACK TIME.

Most busy adults stay snack-packed to avoid suddenly hungry…and suddenly CRANKY…children.  If a bag of cereal provides an extra 15 minutes at the store or a liquid snack of milk in a sippy cup buys 10 more minutes to get ready, maybe it’s okay that children eat a bit less at meals (also observed in Dr. Popkin’s study).

How Snacking Hurts Kids

Unfortunately, all this snacking is not teaching children sensible eating habits.

Snacking young children do not eat because they are hungry.  Instead, they automatically nibble because food is there, or because it’s snack time, or because “we always eat after reading”, or because they are bored or restless, or – yum yum – because it’s salty and tasty.  And, snacking young children are eating too many processed, salty, sugary foods.

One precious gift caring adults can offer young children is the structure and support to eat in response to their own cues, and to eat a healthy diet – nurturing their young  bodies for a lifetime of healthy habits.

Practical Tips For Healthier Snacking

  1. Limit the number of snacks you give to children, and feature healthy options – fruit, vegetables, water, milk, whole grain, and low sugar/low salt foods.
  2. Prepare fruit and vegetables for easy snacking. Young children need between 1 – 1 ½ cups of fruit, and 2 cups of vegetables every day.  Cut up apples, grapes, strawberries, carrots, or string beans – fresh or frozen both count.
  3. Identify a table or spot where snacks are eaten without TV or media screens so children can pay attention to what they are eating, and stop when they are no longer hungry.
  4. Provide only water in sippy cups that get carried around.
  5. Avoid snacks an hour before meals so that children will eat their meal.

These sensible tips can build healthy habits for young children.  For children with special dietary needs, weight concerns, or other health conditions, a physician’s advice supersedes these recommendations!

Here are more ideas for healthy snacking in young children. And there are lots of fun tips on our Pinterest boards, too!



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