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“Is snacking okay?” A lot of people ask me this question. Honestly, I don’t care if they are “okay.” I wouldn’t survive a day of motherhood without snacks to keep my children from killing each other!
Seriously though, let’s talk about healthy snacking.
Snacks are not necessary for every single child. Snack are necessary for some kids. A lot depends on your family situation, your schedule, how much the child sleeps, and a million other things.
The Food Schedule/Routine
One thing I do recommend in most situations is that you have an eating routine or schedule in your house. This means, that food is available at certain times. And not available at other times.
The person that chooses the eating schedule at home is you.
This is important. Part of the parent’s job is to choose when food is offered. I recommend offering food in a consistent way throughout the day. You may be a “schedule person” who always follows the clock. Or you may be a “routine person” who just follows a routine of activities throughout the day. Either is fine.
Perhaps you have 3 meals and 3 snacks. Perhaps you have 3 meals and 0 snacks. I’ve been in some cultures where they have 2 meals and 2 snacks.
You Get to Choose the Routine
It doesn’t really matter what schedule you choose, as long as your child knows what to expect. Small kids have small stomachs. That means that they fill up quickly and burn through their food quickly. Most kids will be hungry every 2.5-4 hours or so.
Having an eating schedules makes sure that your kids are also not eating all day long. It’s important for them to be hungry for the next eating opportunity. If they aren’t ever eating dinner, they may not be hungry for dinner. Tweaking your food schedule may help them.
In my house, we have
- morning snack
- afternoon snack
- after- school snack (sometimes skipped on the weekends)
This is what works for my family. Your family schedule will likely look completely different. A lot of families find that 3 meals and 1 afternoon snack is perfect.
Whatever your schedule, serve food according to your routine. Do not serve food at other times. If your child chooses not to eat food at a meal or snack, that is okay. They can wait until the next meal or snack.
The major exception to all of this is for kids who have experienced trauma or neglect related to food, or an eating disorder. For those kids, making sure food is available whenever they need it is okay! They may have a high need for having food available around the clock. Working with their medical and mental health professionals to make sure they have what they need is so important.
What to Serve for Snacks
What you choose to serve for snacks will make a big difference in whether your kids are “snack crazy” or not. A lot of times kids just want snacks. They ignore meals and just eat snacks. Why?
Usually, it’s because different kinds of food is offered for snacks versus meals.
You may have heard the term “snack food.” “Snack food” usually refers to chips, crackers, cookies, candies, dried cereal, etc. Sometimes it includes nuts and dried fruit, but not always.
Most kids will gladly skip breakfast, lunch, or dinner, if they know that snack food is coming. They are happy to wait 2 hours. Even 3 hours. They can be patient (unless we need them to be patient….then they can’t be patient).
I suggest making “meals” and “snacks” look the same. Basically, food is food.
Snacks are Small Meals
I consider meals to be small snacks. Little kids may not be hungry at meal time, but they may be hungry at snack time. I don’t want to miss that chance for them to eat food that will help them grow. At snack time, they are still going to get food, not “snack food”.
Of course, eating “snack food” is fine and it is included at meals. I include it right along everything else. Sometimes there may be a snack that only includes snack food. I try to make this the exception to the rule, however. That way, the kids don’t expect snack food. Instead, they expect just normal food.
The Snack Formula
What you serve at snacks is also really important for the kids. “Snack food” is usually very high in simple carbohydrates and low in protein. Kids need carbohydrates, but they burn through simple carbohydrates really fast. Then, they don’t have anything to keep them full. That means they get hungry and grumpy. Next thing you know, 30-50 minutes later they are whining for another snack.
Here is the snack formula that I have been using for my kids for the past 5 years:
Fat Source + Protein Source + Fruit + Veggie = Healthy snack
Do I always use this snack formula? No. Sometimes I don’t want my kids to fill up.
For example, my kids get a really light snack at school in the afternoon. It doesn’t have a lot of protein or fat. So, they can’t make it to dinner time.
They are famished when we pick them up. The problem, is, dinner is shortly after pick up. So, it’s not a good time for a snack.
In that case, I use a different formula. I give them a snack that won’t fill them up. Veggies are my go-to. I may pack extra veggies in their lunch so that they can eat veggies on their way home (if they will still be safe). Or I may send a veggie-based snack. Sometimes it may be a granola bar or some fruit, but veggies are the best option to “tide you over” to a meal that is coming right up in 30 minutes.
Let’s talk about each of the components of a snack now so that you can put it all together.
Vegetables & Fruit
Veggies and fruit are much more than just vitamins and minerals. They have a lot of fiber. Fiber helps keep your little one full. It also feeds their microbiome. Their microbiome is all of the bacteria and other “bugs” living in their gut (intestines) that help keep them healthy. The microbiome is a really important part of the immune system, mental health, and long-term health.
I have an extensive list of veggies and fruits in my Veggie Exposure Shopping List if you want to branch out and try some new veggies.
I like to try to include a fruit and vegetable at every meal because every exposure counts! I like to keep veggies normal and like they belong everywhere.
The fat source will be really important to keep them full for the next 2-3 hours. They also need fat for their brain development. Here are some healthy fat sources:
- Olive oil
- Avocado oil
- Full fat organic dairy (grass-fed if possible)
- Coconut oil
- Nuts and seeds (ground up if child is under 4)
- Nut and seed butter
Protein also helps the kids stay full for the next 2-3 hours. Protein is also really important for growth and development. Here are some healthy protein sources:
- Nuts and seeds (ground up if child is under 4)
- Nut and seed butter
- Full fat organic cheese and yogurt (grass-fed if possible)
- Meat, poultry, fish
I try to use whole grains whenever possible. If I want to include bread, crackers, cookies, etc, I first see if a whole grain option is available. So, I like whole grain crackers and whole grain bread. Sometimes I even find whole grain cookies.
Snacks don’t have to have a grain to meet my snack formula, but they do need carbohydrates. Kids need a lot of carbohydrates to power their activity. I don’t ever recommend limiting kids’ carbohydrates. The only exception is if they have a medical condition and you’re working with a medical provider to make changes to their diet.
Many things with fat and protein also have carbohydrates though. Yogurt, milk, and fruit have carbohydrates. Plus grains do too.
Here are some examples of healthy snacks that will keep your kiddos full until the next meal or snack.
Applesauce & Nuts
Unsweetened apple sauce (fruit)
Topping: ground nuts (fat), hemp seeds (protein) and dried fruit (fruit)
Crackers & Hummus
Crackers (whole grain)
Hummus (fat & protein)
Broccoli, cauliflower, carrots (vegetables)
Blueberries, golden berries, raspberries (fruit)
Homemade pizza (cheese is protein & fat)
Carrots & cucumbers (vegetables)
Peanut Butter Toast
Whole grain English muffin (whole grain)
Peanut butter (fat & protein)
Raspberries, golden berries, blue berries (fruit)
Carrots, celery, cabbage (vegetables)
Cheese & Date Balls
Grass-fed cheese (fat & protein)
Walnut and date balls (fat & protein)
Blueberries, watermelon (fruit)
Broccoli, wax beans, carrots (vegetables)
Full fat plain organic yogurt with honey (fat & protein)
Pomegranate & clementine (fruit)
Do you let them eat as much as they want?
I usually let my kids eat as much as they want for snack. If they are hungry, their body is telling them they need fuel. So, I let them fuel up.
If they aren’t hungry for the next meal, it means that I may need to make a tweak to the schedule. It could also mean that they just aren’t that hungry next time. That’s okay if they eat different amounts of food at different meals.
Watch your child to learn what they need. Maybe breakfast is big for them. Maybe the afternoon snack is when they really fill up. Don’t expect dinner to be the biggest meal of the day for little kids. They are often worn out by the end of the day and just need something to tide them over to breakfast.
What if they don’t eat all the components?
Maybe you followed the snack formula, but your child only ate the crackers. It’s okay. If you consistently serve the snack formula, they can learn to branch out and eat other things on the plate. The most important thing is that you keep serving complete snacks.
Make sure you stay consistent and you don’t give them something else until the next meal or snack.