Will The Real “Healthy Snacks” Please Stand Up?

Zucchini CupcakesI’ve been known to gripe about the state of kids’ snacks (read: “Snacktivism“). I’m so tired of Fruit Roll-Ups, Capri Suns, and Cheez-Its being trotted out for every. single. kid-related. event. And I’m thrilled when I see parents, school administrators, church leaders, and coaches asking for healthy snacks–especially now at the start of the school year. I like the idea of setting a good pattern early. No more cupcakes and pink punch at 10am? I say, bravo!

But it’s the lists–the ones telling parents which snacks are healthy and acceptable. Those lists make me cringe a little bit. They usually start out with the basics like fresh fruit and cut-up vegetables. There may be mention of cheese sticks. Then it ventures into a rather gray area that includes, but is not limited to, graham crackers, granola bars, pretzels, and muffins.

Are these snacks healthy? Depends who you ask. Because “healthy and acceptable” are in the eye of the beholder. One person’s “healthy graham cracker” is another’s “sugar bomb”. One parent’s “non-organic imported nightmare” is another’s “totally acceptable fresh fruit”. Some people think muffins are okay if they’re homemade, but not if they’re store bought. And the thought of muffins and granola bars being eaten at kindergarten circle time or passed around at camp likely strikes fear into the hearts of parents whose children have severe food allergies–and rightly so.

I know the lists are well intentioned–and indeed, they can help. But I’ve seen lists that prohibit candy but encourage gummy fruit snacks (which are, well, kind of like candy–at least they are to me, they may not be to you). I’ve also seen lists that say “organic fruit recommended” (but can all parents afford that? I know many in my community cannot).

So, what’s the answer? I think an important first step is considering whether a snack is even needed. In my son’s kindergarten class, children are asked to bring a small (nut-free) snack for themselves to eat during circle time.  Then they phase out the snack a few months into the school year. The older grades do not have snack time at all.

There must be a way to keep kids nourished without having sanctioned snack time at every event, including 2-hour preschool camps or an hour-long Sunday school class. It seems like snack time is often built in without much thought to whether kids will even be hungry at that moment. I understand that snack time is sometimes meant to build community, but with so many disagreements about what really are “healthy snacks” (and so many children with food allergies and intolerances), I think it makes sense to rethink snacks in many settings.

And yes, that includes sports. (Read “The End of Soccer Snacks?“)

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  1. bernadette Hanson says

    well said. We are so food (snack) – centered. It would be nice to find other ways to bond or relax or celebrate or whatever. But, man it is hard to change the “rules” that are now so ingrained. Are we’re snacking our kids into bad eating habits, even if the snacks are more healthy? Thanks for giving me something to think about and work on. Hmmmm! Brain working.

    • says

      You are so right, we ARE food centered and we start training our kids to be food centered at a very young age. As a dietitian, I obviously love the “idea” of healthy snacks–but I also like the idea of my kids only snacking when they’re truly hungry, not because it’s there or because they gathered in a group. Thanks for your comment!

  2. Jennifer says

    I agree with all of your article except for phasing out snacks for kindergarteners. All elementary age kids should have a snack at some point during the day. We are meant to eat 5 or 6 small meals per day as opposed to 3 large ones.

    • says

      Jennifer–I agree that most kids (at least young kids) like eating smaller amounts more frequently instead of three big meals. But school ends at 3:30, and kids either go to an after-school program that includes a snack or they go home where they could get a snack. I think most kids could do from 12:30-3:30 without having a snack at school.

  3. says

    Excellent points, Sally. I was once talking with a parent I know whose daughter has celiac disease, which can certainly complicate school snacks. We were lamenting the after-school program, which serves “healthy” graham crackers, animal crackers, pre-fab “cheese” and cracker packs, etc, and often is staffed by well-meaning older adults who don’t respect the boundaries we’ve tried to set in sending our own kids’ snacks. This parent related to me that she had once been taken to task by the after-school staff because she had sent a gluten-free, sprouted grains muffin that happened to have chocolate chips in it — she was told that she was sending junk food for her daughter and needed to do better at bringing healthy items. Really? I’ve gotten similar pushback when I send homemade chia seed pudding for my son. It’s a bit ridiculous to think that everyone can come to a consensus on these things, which is why I always fall on the side of: Let people feed their own kids as they see fit. (Barring allergy restrictions that must be enforced for the good of the group.) The one who bought it, gets to decide when, where, and if it will be eaten, and it’s nobody else’s business.

    • says

      “It’s a bit ridiculous to think that everyone can come to a consensus on these things”. Exactly! I used to think it was completely obviously that fruit was a better choice at soccer than most anything else that’s usually served–but still, not everyone agreed. And just like someone thought that muffin was unhealthy because of chocolate chips, someone might feel angry if their regular store-bought muffin was deemed unhealthy. I do think eliminating SOME of these snacking occasions would help–not all of them, of course, I totally understand that kids need to snack and mine do it a lot! But do we need a snack at EVERYTHING? Even grown-ups are guilty of this. 30 minute meeting? Break out the snacks! Thanks for your insights.

  4. says

    Thought of you when I read about this study recently in Dr. Michael Mosley’s new book: over the last few decades the amount of time we spend “not eating” has dropped dramatically. In the 1970’s, adults would go about four and a half hours without eating, while children would be expected to last about four hours between meals. Now it’s down to three and a half hours for adults and three hours for children, and that doesn’t include all the drinks and nibbles. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20237134

    • says

      Thanks Casey. Yes, the increased frequency of eating is a growing (and really interesting) area of research–and obesity experts are pointing to it as well. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect a child to go from lunch time to 3:30 without a snack. If my kids were at home, they’d probably reach for something sooner. But I think we also have to learn to wait until it’s available again. My older son has a snack when he gets home–or sometimes goes until dinner (and eats a bigger dinner) and I bring some fruit for my kindergartner at pick-up time.

  5. says

    I am with you. Snacks are not obligatory. We have one after school, as they do in France, and that’s it. A fruit, a dairy, a grain…and on Fridays, a little treat. I totally disagree with the notion we need several small meals a day. That is grazing. We should come to the table a little bit hungry, and savor well-prepared food (not insane American-sized portions). I really dislike snacks at Sunday School (what? did I not just feed her breakfast?), and at morning-only camps. My Kelly won’t eat lunch! Gummy fruits are a joke, and should be categorized in the health category with “chocolate milk”. Meaning, they are desserts.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment, Lori. I think coming to the table hungry is very important–especially after I’ve spent 30-45 minutes getting dinner together and on the table. If my kids came to the table full of snacks every evening, that would not go over well with me! 🙂

  6. Kym says

    Thank you so much! My son has severe nut (among MANY other things) allergies and I thnk I just come off as a helicopter mom. His third grade teacher would make comments about his snacks and actually have the girls at his table harass him how his snack wasn’t “healthy” enough. Yes, it was crackers, but just about anything else on her “acceptable” list would harm him. This year, they don’t have lunch until 1 pm so I think snacks are a good thing. He has a very supportive teacher and great kids in his class this year. I will pass out non-food tokens of our appreciation this year for helping keep him safe!

    • says

      Kym–How sad that the teacher was making negative comments about his snacks! I hope you were able to speak with her about this–perhaps she didn’t understand the situation and would benefit from learning more about food allergies and the challenges involved with dealing with school snacks and “acceptable snack” lists (but no matter what the situation, making negative comments about a child in the classroom is obviously not right!).

  7. says

    I completely agree with this – and I agree kids are snacking way to frequently and it seems that every activity includes a snack. That said, especially in Kindergarten, it can be a long day and kids may really need a snack. Schools that ask parents to send in snacks should definitely not comment on or criticize what parents send in. But I do know many schools like to do a shared snack and I think it’s unfortunate that we are losing shared meals (though I realize for kids with an allergy it can be a true nightmare). The challenge is offering “healthy” snacks that bring us together, at the table, not create more division and judgement. And while I don’t think it’s possible to all agree on a singular definition of healthy, it’d be great if schools could focus more on fruits and vegetables, and less on processed, sugary food. And schools could be transparent and up front in what they are offering ahead of time, so families can decide if they want their child to join in a shared snack.

    • says

      Caron–I agree, a shared meal/snack is nice for kids to experience together in the classroom. I love the idea of kids sharing fruits/veg. What we’ve run into at our school is worries about cross-contact with fruits/veg being sent from home for kids with food allergies. And sadly, the fruit provided by our school’s foodservice is not very good: mostly (tasteless) red delicious apples, plus bananas and oranges sometimes. It’s not the kind of appealing fruit that would get kids excited about eating fruit unfortunately. Thanks for your thoughts!

  8. Anne says

    Hallelujah! I have felt this way for years, but definitely find myself in the minority whenever I mention how crazy it is that our kids can’t be expected to go without an eating session for 3 hours at a time. I endured the snacks during the preschool years, comforted by the thought that it would be over when they started kindergarten…. I somehow missed the memo when snacks became the norm in kindergarten classrooms. Then last year when my kids were in kindergarten I thought, “okay, just one more year, you can do it.”

    Lo and behold, now that my kids are in 1st grade our new principal has decided that kids of all ages need snacks during the school day! I hope to end the insanity without having to endure 8 more years of it at their current school, but so much of the pressure to allow kids to snack at school is apparently coming from parents who somehow think eating all day long is healthy behavior. Heaven forfend our kids have to endure the sensation of slight hunger for any length of time, however brief. And we’re not talking about poor, starving kids here, although I suppose we may be talking about nutrient-deficient kids much of the time. Unfortunately, adding a “snack time” to the school day is not going to cure that problem when the snacks are things like candy, chips, soda, and other heavily processed or sweetened “foods.”

    As our school wellness coordinator, I do struggle with the whole “healthy snack” list idea myself. I tend to think whole foods or home prepared snacks are generally healthy, but that is because “home prepared” in our house means no additives or preservatives, and far less sugar than typical recipes call for. And one of my kids’ (and my) favorite healthy snacks has long been a handful of nuts (pecans, walnuts, almonds, cashews, and even peanuts), which you’ll rarely find on a list of recommended stacks anymore.

    My solution to the set snack time at school has been to send in a small snack that I consider healthy for my kids to eat at their designated snack time, but then there are no after school snacks unless they have leftovers from school lunch or snack time.

    • says

      Thanks for your comment Anne. You are so right that although the snack time is supposed to help kids stay nourished and fueled in between meals, so many of the snacks are nutrient-poor–like packaged chips, crackers, even granola bars. And with so many food allergies (which is why schools don’t list nuts as a recommended snack) it’s hard to find snacks that are safe for everyone, much less “healthy and acceptable”. Sorry you have to deal with daily school snacks every day. As you can see from these comments, there are varying opinions on whether kids need to snack during the school day. I do think each child is different, but like you, I’m okay with my kids not snacking during the school day. Makes them much more hungry at dinnertime! 🙂

  9. Peggy says

    Sally, I can’t agree more! I think snack time has been widened to fill time that otherwise is awkward for some adults, and to keep kids from “getting crazy ” (i.e. give them something to do). I work in an elementary school and the snacks that kindergarten roll out at 2:00 in the afternoon are mostly junk. Granted it’s been three hours since lunch, but fruit roll ups don’t do more than give the sugar buzz and we KNOW it – teachers and parents alike!

    • says

      Peggy–thanks so much for your perspective as someone who works in a school. I agree that snack time is sometimes put in as a “time filler” or a way to get kids to sit down and calm down. But like you said, a poor-nutrient snack like a Fruit Roll-Up isn’t going to do much good for them!

  10. Kym says

    Sally-I think she understood the gravity of the situation, she just is not a nice person. (I know, she has made a poor career choice). And she also teaches Religious Ed at our church (had to yank him out and request another teacher). All in all, the kids are usually good. The parents are the problem. This year at backt to school night I was able to hint at the seriousness of it all, but also let them know that our goals as a family are to 1)Create Awareness, and 2) Help him navigate a world that will never be free of danger for him. I think I finally got through to the parents that I want to be “partners”. So far it is working well. We will see how it goes.

    • says

      Kym–I’m sorry you had that experience and I hope you’ve moved on to a teacher who understands the situation better. And I agree, I do think parents can be harder to convince and change than kids are. I love your idea of being “partners” with other parents in keeping your child and all kids safe. That’s a great way to look at it. Good luck!

  11. Crystal says

    I just field a call from my daughter’s pre-school teacher asking about (among other things) if it would be ok for her to have the birthday “treats” that will be brought in for “me days” (birthday celebrations). I said yes because I can’t figure out how to explain the nuances of good snacks to either my two year old or her teacher. I opted out of group snack and send her snack every day so I am a little freaked out about this decision. School is only 2 days a week for 3 hours a day. I guarantee they are busy enough that she would never even notice not having a snack. How I wish we could just do away with snacks! Thanks for your work toward that end- it gives me courage to keep trying.

    • says

      Crystal–I wonder how many of these “me days” are scheduled. Might be worth talking to the preschool director about your concerns. I’m guessing other preschool parents may be concerned about the frequency of treats as well. Perhaps there is another way they can do “me day” that doesn’t involve cupcakes, etc. (I’m also guessing that are children with food allergies that might not be able to participate). And you’re so right–most kids are happy playing the staying busy in preschool without having a snack!

      • Crystal says

        Fortunately, it is a small school and there are only 5 kids in the class but I just keep having nightmares about cupcakes with day-glo frosting and “healthy” baked Cheetos. (Evidently that was what the 4 year-olds ended up having at every Me Day last year because that’s what the first kid brought and the rest of them followed suit.) My biggest wish- to have this discussion with the school and the other parents of the class without them looking me as “that” mom.

        • says

          Crystal–yes, the first kid often sets the tone for what all the others bring/want! Is there another parent at the school that you feel comfortable talking to about this? Even if there are just two of you who feel this way, perhaps you can go to the preschool director and see if she/he is open to talking about the “me days” and considering alternatives. I’m guessing there are more parents who don’t want their kids having cupcakes and Cheetos at preschool. Trouble is, sometimes the parents who *don’t* want to see change happen are the most vocal. :/

  12. Carli says

    @Jennifer, I don’t think most anthropologists would agree that we are meant to eat five or six small meals each day as opposed to three large ones. Our hunter gatherer ancestors ate much less frequently than three times a day, and our genetics really haven’t changed much since then. How often we “need” to eat is mainly a matter of conditioning and habit.

    My two-year-old eats two large meals per day (breakfast and dinner), a small lunch on weekdays only (we eat a late breakfast on weekends so he doesn’t need lunch), and has a small afternoon snack after his nap, which we are already starting to phase out. You would think that a toddler who goes as much as seven hours between meals during the day would be a whiny, cranky nightmare, but in fact, the opposite is true, and I get almost no food-related meltdowns whatsoever, because he simply doesn’t expect to be fed constantly.

    It all comes down to what a kid is used to.

    • says

      Carli–I agree that it comes down to what a kids is used to and snacking vs. not often a matter of conditioning. My five year old would graze all day long if I let him (and would never be hungry at dinnertime!). So I’m amazed at your two year old! Snacking has definitely increased over the years, and we now eat more frequently than ever before–but sadly, that’s largely driven by food marketers (think about Taco Bell and their “Fourth Meal” ad campaign!). 🙂

  13. says

    Ugh, yes. I so agree. There is too much snacking with little regard given to whether or not the kid might be hungry. I don’t mind a list of suggestions to get the ideas flowing. Some parents don’t have any idea what constitutes a reasonable snack for a child (and it’s typically smaller than we think!). I also think this mentality feeds into (no pun intended) our kids desire for instant gratification. Would it be so bad if we had to wait FOR ANYTHING? Thanks for your thoughts on this.

    • says

      Alicia–thanks for your comment. Good point about instant gratification. I am amazed at how today’s kids don’t have to wait for anything (like their favorite TV show–it’s on the DVR or Netflix or online all the time!). Food has certainly fallen into that category too!

  14. Sara says

    When I was in school in the 80’s, kindergarten was only half-day and the higher grades had a school day from 9 to 3. Lunch was @ 12 and so there was no need for a snack. I don’t recall snack in kindergarten, but I do remember milk, only white, and our parents decided if we got whole or skim. My parents chose whole for me because they thought I was too thin and needed the calories. Only the heavier children got skim milk. Times sure have changed. I am not the kind of parent who always packs snacks, it’s just not second nature and tends toward over-eating. But my kids are always hungry and school starts so early. The problem is that the snacks are communal, and we live in a heterogenous society. We will never ever agree on what is acceptable. So ditch the group snack and have parents pack an individual one.

  15. Stephanie says

    I’m on the Children and Youth committee at my church and we are trying to make healthier meals for our Wednesday night meals. It’s a struggle since some parents claim kids won’t eat healthier options. I bring this up because of the mention of snacks at Sunday school. I had never heard of such a thing and are glad we don’t do it. I sometimes do very specific snacks tied to the lesson. Once we had Matzo, parsley, and grape juice when discussing passover but it wasn’t snack just for snack sake.

  16. says

    Sally, I can’t even tell you how happy I am to have found your page! We took our daughter to the doctor’s for her 3 year old checkup and they told us that she was in the 95th percentile for weight. She was “overweight and would struggle with it her entire life.” I was heartbroken. Then I found out that I could change things. Last year at her 5 year old visit the doctor said she is growing into her weight nicely (I think she is in the 71st percentile).
    BUT let me tell you the last two years have been grueling in terms of saying no to sugary and unhealthy snacks…it is EVERYWHERE and so frustrating. How many times can a mom say no in one day to junk food that isn’t even at your own house? How many times do I have to say, “sorry honey but I don’t know why your teacher keeps sending candy home as a reward? How many times do I have to say, “we can’t go to so and sos house today (where treats runs rampant), we have other plans”. We do allow our kids one day a week to have a treat but usually it turns into more than one treat for that day so that our kids don’t feel “left out” of something.
    Although it has been so difficult to get and keep our daughter at a healthy weight I refuse to give up. We have focused on eating for energy and feeling good never on weight or size.. These days our daughter runs like the wind in the yard and is happy to chase her brother and friends. She is confident in what her body can do, loves the monkey bars and the climbing wall at the playground. She also knows what healthy eating is and how good it makes her feel.
    Just wanted to say thanks for letting me know that I am not alone in my battle to do the right thing for my babies.

    • says

      Thanks Paulaya. It’s great to hear that your daughter is happy and thriving. I feel your pain with treats at every turn, and it can be tough. Sounds like you’re finding a balance between not giving in to everything offered but not restricting either. Glad you found my blog–and glad to have you here!


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