Behind the scenes of our eye-opening story about how today's kids eat.
Snacking Clock
Credit: Avery Powell

Sally Kuzemchak's story in our March 2013 issue about kids' near constant munching has created some serious buzz. Check out what else the dietician and mommy of two had to say about her passionate crusade for healthy snacking.

What led you to the story idea for "The Snack Epidemic"?

It started a few years ago when my oldest child began playing peewee soccer. As I mentioned in the intro to the story, I was appalled by the snacks and really surprised because when I played soccer growing up, the moms took turns bringing orange slices, and that was it. So there I was as the mom, and parents were bringing chips and cupcakes and doughnuts and sugary drinks. As a dietician, too, I was really shocked, but I didn't say anything because I didn't want to ruffle feathers. But by the last game of the season, when there were giant frosted cupcakes, I knew this had to stop. So I set out to change the snack policy for my son's teams, and as I was doing that, I started noticing snacks everywhere. I noticed that, gosh, kids aren't just getting these kinds of snacks at soccer games, they're getting them at preschool and after school clubs and Sunday school. Every time kids gather we bring out fruit snacks and sugary drinks -- even if it's only for 45 minutes. When I started talking to other parents about it, I found that a lot of them felt the same way I did. Then, when I dug into the research, I learned that indeed snacking has increased tremendously, and indeed, obesity researchers are worried about it. That's when I realized it isn't just a few moms noticing something; it's something big and potentially harmful.

What has been the greatest challenge in changing the way your children snack, and how have you implemented the change?

The greatest challenge is that kids are used to unhealthy snacks. The first couple of games, they were like, "Aw, where are the chips?" and I'd say, "Well, we have apples." And they'd just grab an apple and be done with it. So I think the kids have adapted to it pretty well and it's been surprisingly easy for them.

I've had to really rethink what I was doing at home too. We were snacking quite a lot, and that's an ongoing struggle that I think all parents have reigning in that constant desire to eat. I continue to work on that with my own kids. I have to ask, "Are you hungry or are you just bored?" And grown ups struggle with that too. "Am I hungry or do I just feel like eating something," or "Am I sad and I want to grab something?"

When you have a toddler out in public, the first time you don't have a snack and your child has a meltdown because they're too hungry, that really scars you -- so you think you have to carry something around at all times to avoid it. But then it's really easy for that to get out of hand. When you have a million containers and baggies of food for a one-hour outing to the playground you have to think, "Is this necessary?"

Have you noticed any differences in your children?

Yea, I recently implemented a new policy for my 4-year-old who's home a few days a week that the kitchen is closed during certain hours. We have our snack at 10am and then the kitchen is closed until noon when we have our lunch. That's new for us around here but he's hungrier when lunchtime comes around. And we have a policy that an hour before dinner you can eat vegetables like carrots and broccoli -- crudité type of thing -- but that's it. And so they do come to the table ready to eat their meal, as opposed to snacking and then getting to dinner and not being hungry. Also, in the story, Dr. Katja Rowell mentioned if you want to introduce new foods, your kids have to be hungry in order for them to be receptive to trying something for the first time. If they come with their belly filled with crackers and juice, their motivation to try something new is going to be very low.

In your opinion, what's the ideal snack schedule and what are ideal snacks?

Around 7am my son eats breakfast and then we might have a mid-morning snack around 9:30am or 10am, and then he eats lunch. We have a snack maybe at 3pm and then we eat dinner around 6pm. That's ideal. But fruit is a good measure of whether kids are really hungry. Give them an apple or banana and if they don't want it, then you have to questions whether they're actually hungry or just wanting something crunchy and salty.

And I think that's why the fruit is always a good default after sports. All kids need more fresh fruit -- and the fiber, antioxidants, and vitamins they're getting from it. And if they don't want it, then that's fine, they can go home and have a meal. That's what I try to do at home. If my kids say they're hungry, I'll say, "Do you want me to cut up an apple, or how about a banana?" and if they say, "Nah," I'll say, "Are you actually hungry? Why don't we go play a game or read a book."

And the thing is too, peewee soccer players aren't sweaty when they come off the field. A lot of them stand around and look up at the sky much of the game, so to have them run off the field and hand them a bag of chips and juice is kind of ridiculous.

More from Sally Kuzemchak

What's the most important lesson you've learned and what has surprised you along the way?

The most important lesson I've learned is that it's really important how you approach people about this. You can go in with your guns blazing and feeling all self-righteous about what you're doing, but you're going to end up alienating or offending people. They'll think, "So the snack I brought last week wasn't good enough? I'm not a good enough mom? I don't care about my kids, is that what you're saying?" There are a lot of emotions with this subject so the approach is very important. Whether it's at school, or on the soccer field, or at church, make sure to take great care approaching whoever is in charge. Say "Here are some concerns I have. I'd love to talk to you about them and give you my help." Nobody likes when someone comes to them complaining about something, but if you go with ideas it's a whole different story. So when I go to the coaches I say, "Hey, I have this idea for the snack policy and I would love to coordinate the snack schedule for you so you don't have you worry about it," or "I would love to bring the snacks for our preschool class." Whatever it is, if you can bring your help and be kind and understanding, it goes so much farther than sending off an angry email about the junk food that's being given. It's all in the approach.

What are the best ways that you've found to convince parents to get on board?

One way is to actually suggest to get rid of snacks altogether and a lot of parents are very receptive to that because it takes something off their to-do list. So sometimes you can put that out there as an option and say, "I know we are so busy and we all have so much going on. Why don't we eliminate the snack entirely and just bring water bottles for our kids and feed them lunch at home afterwards." Some parents respond really well to that. There's also the argument of fruit, especially bananas, being cheaper than buying a case of packaged cookies. You can suggest that everybody bring their own water bottle so no one has to bring juice. It's less expense for everybody and it's less to carry to the field. So you can present it as "Here's a cheaper and easier way of doing it." That's always a good approach -- not, "I don't like what you've been bringing, and I want you to bring healthier things."

With sports, I go to the coach before the season has started, and I send him or her and email with my concerns ("Here's what I'd like to do. What do you think?"). And I've always gotten positive reactions. Then I can go to the parents and say, "Hey, the coach and I have this idea for the snacks." And so it's presented as coming from both of us or with the coach's blessing, instead of just looking like this know-it-all parent who's trying to take over. I went to the soccer and tee-ball leagues in our town and they weren't interested in doing any kind of league-wide snack policy so I decided I'll just do it team-by-team, and the coaches have been really nice about it.

Have you tried reaching out to teachers about classroom eating habits?

Yes, I'm co-chair on our school wellness committee, and luckily our school has adopted pretty strict guidelines on outside food this year because of food allergies. That's another really important point to make in all this: With all of the food allergies, either eliminating snacks or bringing fruits or vegetables is so much better for the kids who have allergies because most of them can actually participate in the snack that way and not feel left out.

I always try to either organize or help plan the classroom celebrations. I stress this on my blog: If you care about this stuff, you need to jump in and help make the change happen. Instead of just saying you don't like the junk at the party, get on the party committee. I organized a green smoothie day at my son's school and we went in and made the kids spinach, banana, and pineapple smoothies one day at lunch time, so I'm trying to find ways to provide positive associations with healthy foods like fruits and vegetables because some kids don't experience that at home. You want to make it as fun and delicious as possible.

More from Sally Kuzemchak

Older kids do generally require a heartier snack than younger kids. Where is the distinction between age groups?

It's not that I'm saying feed all kids fruit and water after games. Let's say you have a kid who's 10 and played two hours of soccer. You're going to want to give them some carbs and protein. And if it's lunchtime, you want to give them their lunch. It's different from that little 4-year-old who maybe ran around the field for 15 minutes, you know? It varies so much, though -- you could have an 8-year-old who's going through a growth spurt and eating constantly, or a very petite girl 8-year-old who doesn't require much. It's so dependent on each situation.

Have parents changed their opinions on snacking after hearing your thoughts?

I definitely hear from a lot of parents who are so relieved I took it on because they've been feeling the same way I do but were nervous to speak up. And I've heard from parents whose kids have eaten new fruits. One mom who lives across the street from me said her son always hated strawberries and she saw him eat a bunch of them after a game because everyone else was doing it. So I definitely get a lot of positive feedback about that. When I brought green smoothies to school and had the kids guess what they were made out of, some of them couldn't believe they liked it when I told them it was spinach. It's always fun to see that reaction.

In the summer, I'd bring little Dixie cups full of blueberries to tee-ball and loved seeing kids coming back for seconds and thirds. Here are these kids whose parents thought they would riot if they didn't get fruit rollups, asking for more blueberries. That's really satisfying.

What would you like Parents readers to take away from your story, and do you have any advice for them?

The takeaway is to be aware of snacking. Start noticing how often your child is snacking, what they're snacking on, and what they're getting at all of these other places that they go -- is that that the kind of food you want them to be eating? And if it's not, then you have the power to change that. It doesn't have to be a big standoff with the preschool teacher. You have the power to create positive change by approaching who's in charge and sharing your ideas in a very polite, kind, helpful way. You don't have to be the person in charge or a dietician to go to someone and say, "I'm kind of concerned about the preschool snacks and I was hoping we could talk about them." Anyone can do that. And think about not only those outside snacks that kids are getting everywhere, but the snack you're giving at home, and how frequently you're giving them. Does your child really need it? We don't want our kids constantly eating. Like we say in the story, we're moving towards near constant eating and that's worrisome because that frequency of eating can be a factor in obesity. We want our kids to know what it feels like to be hungry and what it feels like to be full. If they're constantly eating they're never going to feel that, and we don't want that for them.

Copyright © 2013 Meredith Corporation.

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