It’s probably happened in your house: The kids are totally happy to eat their snacks, but when it comes to sitting down and sharing family meals, it’s a battle. Enter, these simple strategies that will help reset the balance on kids snacks and (hopefully!) reduce the mealtime drama.
Since the 1970s, we’ve all started eating more snacks in our days. This means that we’re simply eating more snacks in general, and we’re eating more “snack food” such as packaged crackers, chips, bars, pouches, and yogurt. There are more of these foods in the marketplace and snacks now make up about ⅓ of the calories that us and our kids eat.
That is not in itself a problem, but it can cause challenges because snack foods are often easier to eat, they’re very uniform in flavor (unlike fresh fruit which can be sweet, tart, or musky, depending). And snack food are super delicious. And those preferences can mean that kids don’t want “meals” and that can be incredibly stressful.
If snacks are causing stress in your house and you’re looking for a few simple ways to reign them in, you’re not alone!
1. Think of “Snack” as a Time to Eat, Not a Category of Food
“Snack food” usually means foods like pretzels, chips, granola bars, and the like, but if you can think of the food that you serve between breakfast and lunch, and then lunch and dinner as a “mini meal”, it will be easier for you to serve a wider range of foods.
2. Serve the Same Types of Foods at Meals and Snacks
One of the reasons that kids get super excited about snack time, and not meal time, is that “snack” food tends to be more fun than “regular” food. One simple way to reset the balance if the kids happily eat their snacks but protest at dinner is to serve all food at all meals. Add some crackers to soup, serve some veggies with a yogurt pouch, have a snack bar with a smoothie for breakfast.
This can help reduce the feeling that “snack foods” are saved for special times of the day.
3. Rethink “Healthy Snacks”
Honestly, “healthy” doesn’t have an actual definition. The goal with snacks is to provide the kids with enough energy to fuel them until the next time to eat. What that means can vary from day to day. Some days snacks maybe simple foods like cheese and fruit, others it might be a cookie with milk or a granola bar.
4. Have Snacks at the Table
I fully realize that there are times when eating on the go is necessary—and that “snack foods” are usually easier to eat in those circumstances, but whenever possible, have the same dynamics at snack time as you do at meal times to help make all eating opportunities feel similar.
This can also help reset expectations if the kids are used to having their snacks in front of the tv or ipad…and then expecting similar entertainment at dinner.
5. Allow Favorite Snacks in the Mix
One of the best ways to help kids to be less obsessed with their favorite foods is to let the kids eat them! (Sounds counter-intuitive, I know.) In our house, this means we almost always have Goldfish crackers and Zbars and we cycle through them at snack times with other foods in the mix too. We keep them in a cabinet that’s out of site so the kids aren’t asking by them all day long, but they’re not totally off limits.
This can help to precent a scarcity mindset that can cause food fixation in some kids and can reduce how much the kids worry about when they’ll be able to have that favorite food again (which can be really stressful for little kids who have no control over what foods they’re being served.)
6. Allow Time Between Meals and Snacks
A simple reason that a child may eat their snack but not the meal that follows is that they simply aren’t hungry. So if you have a toddler who doesn’t always eat their dinner, look at how long it’s been since their afternoon snack and consider allowing more time or just adjusting your expectations for how much they may eat at dinnertime. (If you’re serving more or less similar foods for all meals, dinner doesn’t have more inherent value than afternoon snack.)
Most kids should have 2-3 hours between each eating opportunity.
7. Try to Avoid Snacks as Rewards
Where we live, it’s incredibly common for the kids to be handed snacks (or multiple snacks!) after each practice or activity. Whenever possible, I have the kids bring these foods home where they can choose one to eat with their meal and the rest goes into a bowl we have reserved for these foods (and the candy we get when out in the world) in our pantry.
TIP: Find fun non-food rewards here.
For More on Kids and Snacks
Listen to episode 38 of our Comfort Food podcast where we get into all of the issues that can come up with kids and snacks…and we talk about how we really feel about Goldfish crackers.