There are moments when being a parent seems a bit like being a walking snack machine.
From a toddler's first fistfuls of Cheerios to a tween's after-school foraging, modern American children are on the receiving end of a steady stream of food - much of it unhealthful and potentially contributing to childhood obesity. Snacking has become such a problem that a recently published study found that young Americans' relationship with eating is becoming "dysregulated, as our children are moving toward constant eating."
Meaning, it's not your imagination that children today act as though they can't survive without frequent dosings of Teddy Grahams and string cheese.
The study, by Carmen Piernas and Barry M. Popkin of the University of North Carolina, found that children are snacking as many as three times a day, and that snacks and snack foods now account for nearly 30 percent of a typical child's daily caloric intake. "Trends in Snacking Among U.S. Children" was published in the March issue of the journal Health Affairs, which was devoted to exploring the various causes and effects of childhood obesity.
Piernas and Popkin analyzed nutritional data from 31,337 children, 2 to 18 years old, between 1977 and 2006 and found that snacks are larger, more frequent, and more likely to include fruit juice than actual fruit; more reliant on Cheetos than on actual cheese. While snacking increased for kids across the board, the youngest (ages 2 through 6) saw the greatest increase in number of snacks, and white males from higher socioeconomic households - boys likely to have video games and computers in the home - were the biggest snackers in general.
In 1977, American kids were snacking about once a day, and eating significantly more fresh fruit and fewer processed foods overall than today, Piernas said. "They're eating more snacks, but they're eating less healthy snacks. So both things together make the huge difference."
In her first-grade classroom in Gloucester County, teacher Michelle Malaby sees this every day at snack time: What should be a mid-morning nibble to tide kids over until lunch can easily turn into a mini-meal with a main item, plus a drink and a dessert. As in most districts these days, Malaby's school has a student wellness policy that offers pointers on appropriate fare for snacks and class parties - mini bagels and 100-calorie packs are OK, soda isn't - but there's no outright ban on birthday cupcakes.
The problem, the teacher said, is more the day-to-day quantity.
"We had to put a time limit on the snack time, because the more time you give them, they'll keep digging in for more snacks," she said. It's a similar challenge with her own daughters, Hayley, 7, and Alexa, 5. Snacks are limited at home, but on an after-school visit to Blue Plate, the family's restaurant in Mullica Hill, the orange soda dispenser is at the ready and any time can be time for dessert.
The study found that while sugared drinks and sweet dessert-type foods remain the biggest sources of snacking calories, the amount of high-fat, high-salt crunchy snacks continues to increase rapidly. Perhaps most startlingly, it found that obese children aren't eating significantly more food than their thinner peers, but they're snacking on all the wrong things. Combined with advice from pediatricians and nutritionists that smaller, more frequent meals can keep blood sugar stable and actually combat obesity, America's children grow up surrounded by mixed messages about food.
Chef Jim Malaby said he has noticed that the high school students who work for him fall into one of two extremes: "I ask them what they want to eat, and they always say salad, they're on a diet. Either that or it's hamburgers and fries," he said.
At home, to avoid becoming a short-order cook for picky eaters at dinnertime, the chef said, he uses snacks as a place to test-run new flavors or unfamiliar textures in smaller portions, for instance, by mixing chopped sun-dried tomatoes into the cream cheese spread on celery sticks. If your child eats only certain vegetables, roast or blanch some to have on hand and incorporate them into snacks such as flatbreads and wraps, or standbys such as grilled cheese or English-muffin pizzas.
Emily Rubin, a clinical dietitian at Jefferson University, advises against serving meals family style, which encourages seconds (or thirds), and says simple conversation at the table is an easy way to encourage eating more slowly.
"You can't force children to eat healthy foods, but you can constantly try to incorporate the foods and you can teach portion control," Rubin said.
Of course, it's easier said than done, especially with today's hectic family schedules making "mealtime" a moving target and consistency often an unattainable goal even for experts like Rubin, a mother of twin 5-year-old boys.
"I am home most nights after 7 o'clock, and my husband makes dinner, and does not eat a fruit or a vegetable - so my kids have no interest," Rubin said. "I eat those foods, but I get home too late to eat with them. I try to incorporate them, but they do not want them. As a mother and a dietitian, I wish my kids would eat healthier."
Inside the home, it's easier to control what food is on hand. But as children grow and interact with the world, they're also exposed to the never-ending food marketing that insinuates itself into their lives through product packaging, television commercials, and online pop-ups in an effort to build brand loyalty before preschool. In 2006, 44 major-label food and beverage marketers spent $1.6 billion selling packaged snacks, baked goods, cereals, candy, desserts, and fast food to kids, $208 million of that on cross-promotions with TV, movies, and the Internet, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Child nutrition experts say parents need to push healthful foods harder when children are younger, since they'll have the rest of their lives to chow down on what they choose. Piernas and Popkin recommend limiting snack time to once a day for kids over age 6, and experts agree the best snacks involve a combination of fiber and proteins, along with fruits and vegetables.
Ideas for Kid-Friendly Snacks
Frozen banana. Peel a banana and slice in half. Insert a popsicle stick in the end of each half. Place on a cookie sheet in the freezer until firm. Carefully roll in yogurt, then low-fat granola, and freeze on a cookie sheet again until firm. (Can also do this with warmed Nutella or melted semisweet chocolate chips.)
- From Sally Kuzemchak, a dietitian who blogs
Pizza melt. Spread a wrap with pizza sauce, sprinkle with part-skim mozzarella cheese, add veggies (if your kid will let you) such as green pepper strips or mushrooms. Put in toaster oven or broiler until hot and bubbly. Roll up or fold over and eat.
- From chef Jim Malaby of Blue Plate, Mullica Hill.
Banana and Peanut Butter Smoothie
Makes 1-2 servings
1 banana, sliced
1/3 cup peanut butter
1 cup soy milk
1/2 cup low-fat yogurt
1. Blend the banana with the soy milk until it is well blended.
2. Mix the yogurt and the peanut butter together before blending.
3. Add the banana-milk mixture and the yogurt-peanut butter mixture to the blender and blend until smooth.
Per serving (based on 2): 382 calories, 18 grams protein, 30 grams carbohydrates. 18 grams sugar, 24 grams fat, 4 milligrams cholesterol, 325 milligrams sodium, 4 grams dietary fiber.