Cookies at school, crackers for car rides, chips after sports ... This around-the-clock nibbling is hurting kids' eating habits—and their health.

Snacking Clock
Credit: Avery Powell

The cupcakes put me over the edge. Every Saturday, I had watched quietly as a convenience store's worth of junk food was handed out after my son's peewee soccer games: cookies, chips, doughnuts, cheese-filled pretzels, fruity drinks. I didn't want to speak up and ruffle feathers. I didn't want to be that mom.

But on this day, after the kids played a 45-minute game during which most never broke a sweat, they were given fruit punch and cookies—plus enormous, frosted cupcakes. It was 10:30 a.m. I was angry, especially at myself for keeping quiet. So I vowed to do something. The next season, I asked my son's coach if we could eliminate junk-food snacks in favor of fruit—and then I held my breath. To my relief, his response was "I couldn't agree more!" I told the team parents that the coach had given the idea his blessing, so they were on board too. I did the same when T-ball began. Each week, the kids devoured the fruit without complaint.

But not everyone liked my plan. Some of my friends pitched the snack policy to their kids' teams and got sharply worded e-mails and even the cold shoulder from other parents at practice. The message: You can bring fruit for your kid, but our kids deserve a treat after games—and after all, it's just once a week. When I suggested a league-wide healthy-snack policy for soccer and T-ball, I was rebuffed by the organizers. Who was I to dictate what kids were allowed to eat? What was so wrong with a few cookies?

Yet it wasn't just a few cookies—and it wasn't just during sports. My kids were being fed junk food everywhere: vanilla wafers at their preschool snacktime, lollipops for class rewards, gummy fruit snacks at after-school clubs. And that was on top of the snacks I was already giving them. Even though I was doling out healthier fare (I am, after all, a registered dietitian), I realized that I was misusing snacks too: a banana promised to my toddler for getting into his stroller, crackers to quell my kids' boredom on long car rides. It occurred to me that my children were rarely without food. And then I had the nerve to be irritated when they weren't hungry for dinner?

Nonstop Snacking

Our kids are snacking more than ever before. In the late 1970s, the average kid between the ages of 2 and 6 ate one snack a day between meals, but today kids typically eat almost three, according to a study by Barry Popkin, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. And, as any mom with raisins strewn inside her handbag knows, some children eat even more than that.

Of course, snacks have long been billed as a healthy part of a child's diet. "They're important because kids have a smaller stomach and high energy needs," says Katja Rowell, M.D., a childhood feeding specialist in St. Paul. Still, even if you're serving relatively benign snacks like string cheese or graham crackers, continually feeding children can have negative consequences. "When kids are allowed to eat all day, it robs them of the chance to ever develop an appetite," says Dr. Rowell. And it can make things worse for picky eaters: "If kids aren't coming to the table at least a little hungry, they're not as willing to try new foods."

Obesity experts now believe that the frequency of eating, not just bigger portion sizes, is also to blame for the uptick in calorie intake for kids and grown-ups alike. "Our children are being offered food at every turn," says Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the University of Ottawa. And adding just one extra snack each day can make a big impact. In fact, it's possible that childhood obesity is driven by as little as 165 extra calories a day for kids ages 2 to 7, say researchers at both Harvard and Columbia universities. That's roughly the amount in a handful of potato chips.

Empty cupcake wrapper
Credit: Avery Powell

Junk-food Junkies

Some moms and dads go out of their way to serve their children only the most nutritious offerings at snacktime."But many parents think of snacks as treats or they grab food that's convenient, which tends to be high in sugar, salt, and refined carbs," says Dr. Rowell.

Not so for Alissa Stoltz, a mom of two in Livingston, New Jersey. When her older daughter started preschool, Stoltz was dismayed by the low-nutrient munchies like pretzels and sugary cereal served in class every day. Even worse, birthdays were celebrated with cupcakes and multiple cups of juice. Stoltz doesn't mind her daughter having these kinds of foods once in a while. "But this happens five mornings a week, so I feel like I have to be stricter about sweets and snacks at home," she says.

There's certainly some room in a child's day for goodies. "One small sweet treat a day can help teach kids about balance and to not see sweets as forbidden foods that become even more alluring," says Kathy Isoldi, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition at LIU Post in New York. The trouble is, there seems to be no balance, with every gathering cause for a special snack. According to Dr. Isoldi's newest research, kindergartners gobble up more than 450 calories—35 percent of their daily calorie needs—during one typical classroom birthday celebration.

And while some parents don't see the harm in an occasional birthday cupcake, or a doughnut during library storytime, it's the additive effect that's worrisome. "It's easy to look at one isolated junk-food snack and say it's okay," says Dr. Freedhoff. "But there are likely multiple times a day when someone is offering your child calorie-laden treats. It's an ongoing, never-ending parade, and it adds up to a huge problem."

Even kids in sports may not be able to offset this calorie surplus. Research at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health in Minneapolis found that an 8-year-old burns about 150 calories in an average soccer game—yet the typical postgame snack has between 300 and 500 calories. "It's so strange that sports have become associated with sweets," says researcher Toben Nelson, Sc.D. "And parents are practically competing with each other to see who can bring the 'best' snack."

Reversing the Trend

Fortunately, there are ways to change your family's behavior. For starters, consider how often you give snacks to your child. Toddlers and preschoolers can go two to three hours between meals and snacks, older kids three to four. As much as you can, avoid on-the-go snacks—in the car and the stroller, in the shopping cart, or as you're going out the door. "Grazing this way makes it harder for kids to eat the right amount because they're so distracted," says Dr. Rowell. Mindless eaters don't have the chance to really savor food or pay attention to their body's hunger or fullness signals, so they often end up over- or under eating.

The foods you serve as snacks should be just as nutritious as the ones you serve at meals, says David Katz, M.D., director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center. As for the munchies your child gets everywhere else, that's a tougher battle to win—but not impossible. Start by bringing fruits and veggies when it's your turn to be snack mom. If you think a gathering doesn't warrant a snack, suggest to the organizer that you skip it entirely (most parents welcome the chance to downsize their to-do list). Talk to the other parents in your child's class, team, or club about your concerns. Chances are, there are like-minded mothers and fathers who simply haven't spoken up.

Casey Hinds, of Lexington, Kentucky, hated the fact that her kindergartner's school constantly rewarded the class with candy, ice cream, and pizza parties. "We have a family history of diabetes, so we considered those 'once in a while' treats," she says. Hinds instead brought fruits and vegetables for class parties and joined the school's advisory group, where she worked to strengthen the school's wellness policy. She admits she got some pushback from parents, but she didn't let it stop her. "Kids aren't in the position to speak up for themselves, so we have to do it for them," says Hinds, adding that most children won't turn down a beautiful fruit tray. Ask the principal or director at your own child's school if there is a policy about healthy eating and exercise—and if you can, volunteer to help in some way. All schools that receive government funding for school lunches must have a wellness policy in place. Though preschools don't have the same requirement, many at least have guidelines about nutrition. "Preschool directors are typically very receptive to parents' concerns about food," says Kathryn Henderson, Ph.D., director of school and community initiatives at the Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity at Yale University. Just be sure to come with concrete suggestions, not simply complaints.

Experts agree that the only way to create real change is for moms and dads to speak up—both at school and at home. "It's a lot easier to just give in and let your children eat this junk," acknowledges Dr. Popkin. "But parents need to take on the battle and either create healthy snacks or get angry and not allow their kids to eat so frequently between meals. They need to do something about it."

Snacktime by the Numbers
Orange peeled
Credit: Shutterstock

Take Back the Snack!

Kids' sports have become overrun with chips, cookies, and other snacks served on the sidelines. if you want to fix that, voice your concerns to the coach—preferably at the beginning of the season. With his or her blessing, consider sending an e-mail like this one to other parents:

Hello! I'm organizing the team snack schedule this season, and the coach and I have a suggestion: Remember the orange slices we all ate on the sidelines as kids? Let's bring them back!

We're concerned about the snacks being offered at the kids' games and figure that some of you may be too. Children today are eating more salty and sugary snacks—and are heavier and less healthy—than ever before. We all sign up our kids for sports to keep them active and fit, but the cookies, chips, cupcakes, and sugary drinks handed out after games aren't in line with that mission.

This season we're suggesting a fruit- and-water-only snack policy for our team. Fruit contains carbohydrates to replenish their energy, plus vitamins, fiber, and extra fluid to hydrate them. And according to the American Academy of Pediatrics, most young children need to drink only water after moderate exercise, not juice or sports drinks.

When it's your turn to supply snacks, please bring fresh fruit, such as bananas, apples, grapes, or slices of watermelon. You might want to bring unsweetened dried fruit too. Each child should bring his or her own full water bottle to each game. We ask that you not bring other drinks for the rest of the team.

If you don't think your child will eat fruit or if you feel he needs something more after the game, please bring your own snack and give it to your child when he's away from the field.

With this snack policy, our team can set an example for the whole league. We all care about our children and want the best for them, so let's start here.

Please let us know if you have any questions or concerns about this policy.

Thank you!


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