Why does my kid always want snacks?

How to manage snack time so everyone stays sane.

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Dear Is My Kid the Asshole,

My child is a snackaholic. As soon as breakfast as over, he’s asking for cheddar bunnies, and eight minutes after he finishes those, he wants fruit snacks. And so on and so on. It drives me nuts, and I suspect all this snacking isn’t good for him. Help!

Fondly,

I Swear My Name Isn’t Annie

Dear I Swear My Name Isn’t Annie,

Greetings from Vermont, where we’re on a short vacation. If you saw how many snacks I packed for our trip, I think you would feel better. Not only is my six-year-old also a snackaholic, but when she doesn’t get enough snacks, she turns into something far worse.

In all seriousness, managing snacks with kids can practically be a full-time job — and that’s not necessarily because you’re doing something wrong. “Adults often overestimate how long kids can go without eating,” explained my friend and journalist Virginia Sole-Smith, author of The Eating Instinct, who is my go-to source on everything concerning the intersection of kids and food. (Virginia has a fantastic newsletter called Burnt Toast that covers fatphobia, diet culture, parenting and food that you should definitely subscribe to.) “Kids have small stomachs and need to eat very often — like at least every three hours. And if you're in the toddler years, or in growth spurt periods, maybe like every 90 minutes.”

So kids do need to snack — they’re not just trying to drive you crazy. Even so, perhaps you’re wondering if your kids sometimes ask for snacks when they’re not really hungry. The answer: Probably. But this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, either. Just as we do, kids sometimes like to eat when they’re bored or anxious — and these, too, are legitimate reasons to reach for the wheat thins. “We tend to, as a culture, revere hunger-based eating and demonize all other forms of eating. But I think it's really important that parents step back from that,” Sole-Smith said. Elizabeth Davenport, a dietitian nutritionist who specializes in family feeding issues, agreed: “There's nothing wrong with wanting something to eat even if someone isn't physically hungry,” she said.

I know, I know; this goes against everything our culture tells us about food and eating. But we would do well not to reinforce these pernicious messages with our kids. When we communicate to children that food is only OK to eat for certain reasons, or that some foods are “good” while others are “bad,” we make it much harder for them to develop healthy relationships with food — and with their bodies.

This is something we all need to be thinking about. In a 2015 study, researchers interviewed 111 five-year-old girls and their mothers and found that one-third of the girls were already restricting their eating in order to stay thin (at age five!!). As I explained in a piece I wrote for Slate, more kids today have eating disorders than type 2 diabetes — nearly one in three high school girls, and nearly one in six high school boys, have disordered eating patterns serious enough to warrant medical help. So instead of worrying about what our kids are eating and why, we should be doing everything we can to protect our kids from diet culture and weight stigma.

“There's so much confusing and inaccurate messaging around food out there that's grounded in fear of weight gain,” Davenport said. “When in actuality, kids are supposed to be growing and gaining weight.”

So, yeah, snacks are not the bad guy — but this doesn’t mean that you should be letting your kids graze on goldfish crackers 14 hours a day, either. There are ways to add structure around snacking that will help your kids get the fuel they need, learn how to listen to their bodies, and still be hungry for lunch and dinner. If your kid is a snackaholic, here are three strategies that might help.

  1. Offer snacks on a schedule.

Sole-Smith and Davenport both suggested that parents offer snacks at specific times, based on their kids’ appetites and needs. Ideally, you are “matching up with your kids’ natural hunger rhythms as much as you can,” Sole-Smith explained. This might mean that you offer a mid-morning and mid-afternoon snack — and you might have to provide more snacks if your kid is really young or going through a growth spurt. Sole-Smith said that parents should decide when snack time is over, but that kids should decide how much food they want to eat (so if your kid finishes what you gave him and asks for more, and it’s still snack time, yes: Give him more).

The notion that parents should be in charge of when food is served, but that kids decide how much, comes from Ellyn Satter’s Division of Responsibility approach to feeding, of which I’m a big fan. (The overarching framework is that parents should choose what, when and where kids eat, but kids decide how much and whether to eat.) It’s an approach that is “meant to take the pressure off both the parent and the child in the feeding and eating relationship,” Davenport said. Our family has been using the approach for a few years now, and we find that it makes meal times and snack times much less fraught. You can read more about the framework here.

  1. Offer a handful of snack options — including sweets and treats.

You should also be in charge of what snacks you offer to your kids, and it’s best to provide a few choices (but not so many as to overwhelm). Davenport suggested pairing proteins and carbohydrates, because carbs provide quick energy, while proteins give more of a slow-release — together they satiate kids for longer. So maybe you say, would you like yogurt and fruit? Cheese and crackers? Or cookies and milk?

Yes, that’s right, I said cookies and milk. I know you’re making a face right now, but hear me out: When we restrict treats (like only rarely offering them), we make our kids fixate on those foods, and we also do not give them opportunities to learn how to handle them — thereby making it harder for kids to consider those foods as neutral and eat them in moderation. In other words, we cause the very problem we are trying to prevent — our kid becomes “the kid at the birthday party eating six cupcakes, and it’s because they have a scarcity mindset around those foods,” Sole-Smith explained.

Studies have confirmed this is indeed what happens. In one small clinical trial, researchers told kids they couldn’t eat certain kinds of snacks, and then later allowed them to eat those snacks. Compared with kids who’d been allowed to eat whatever they wanted the whole time, the kids who’d been banned from eating certain snacks wanted the forbidden snacks much more when they finally got their hands on them — and then ate far more of those snacks as a proportion of their overall food intake.

If you’ve been limiting sweets and treats with your kids, that’s OK — it’s totally understandable, and your kid isn’t doomed for life. But you may want to start introducing treat foods into their snack schedules. At first, you’ll see exactly what you’re terrified of: Your kid will eat 8000 cookies at one sitting, because they’ve been a forbidden fruit, and they assume they won’t be able to get cookies again for a really long time. But over time, as you keep offering them, you’ll see their mindset shift. In fact, after a while, they might stop wanting cookies entirely.

  1. Make snacks a sit-down occasion.

Ideally, you should offer kids their snacks at the kitchen table or, say, a park bench if you’re out. This helps to ensure that kids are focused on the snack, which will allow them to listen and respond to their hunger cues. As anyone who’s ever sat down with a large popcorn in a movie theater knows, when you’re distracted, it’s very easy to keep eating and eating, even when you’re full.

One key reason you want to offer snacks at specific times, and in designated places, is to prevent constant grazing. “When kids graze endlessly, that's when they don't feel their hunger. And then you end up with kids who aren't going to eat their lunch,” Sole-Smith said. It’s not that skipping lunch is, in itself, a big problem — it’s that grazing prevents kids from learning their hunger and satiety cues.

All this said, you don’t have to adhere to these suggestions. If you have a kid who’s good at listening to his body, and who is not overly obsessed with snacks, you should absolutely let him choose when and where snack time occurs. This is the case for my ten-year-old — he only wants snacks once or twice a week now, so I leave the decisions up to him. That’s ultimately what we want: For our kids to be able to make food choices based on what their body is telling them. But they may need some help in order to get there.

For more on handling snacks, check out these two excellent pieces Sole-Smith has written for The New York Times.

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