The downside of self-serve snacks—and how to do it right.

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In theory, it seems like a no-brainer: Snacks placed at arm's reach could help kids be more independent and free you up from another chore in the kitchen.

But in practice, I'm not so sure. Today's kids are snacking more than ever before, and many kids are grazing all day. Though there's nothing wrong with snacking, perpetual munching can lead to mindless eating and overeating—and create kids who are never actually hungry at mealtime. And kids who aren't hungry at mealtime won't be receptive to trying new foods. For some kids, access to self-serve snacks could (literally!) feed into that cycle.

Another worry I have: So many of the self-serve snack suggestions I see online are for packaged foods that contain a lot of added sugar and sodium. They're more like "fun foods" than "meal foods" (think granola bars, squeeze pouches, and individual bags of cheese crackers and pretzels). There's nothing wrong with these foods occasionally, but if kids are given unlimited access to these fun foods all day long—as much as they want, whenever they want—they might not want to eat more "challenging" foods like meat and vegetables come dinner time.

If you want to do self-serve snacks, I'd suggest creating some limits around it. Have designated snack times—such as mid-morning and mid-afternoon—when your child can choose from the selection. Or at the very least, establish a cut-off time for afternoon snacks so it doesn't wreck their appetites (here's how I handle that in my house).

Though some packaged food is fine, err on the side of more fresh, whole foods. Keep a bowl of fresh fruit on the counter that's washed and ready to go. Corral items in a tub or container in your refrigerator with items like this:

  • Baggies of baby carrots and other veggie sticks with small containers of dip
  • Cups of cottage cheese
  • Unsweetened apple sauce
  • Hard-boiled eggs
  • Baggies with small bunches of rinsed grapes
  • Cheese sticks
  • Baggies of edamame
  • Individual tubs of hummus with pita bread

You can also use bento-box lunch containers (here are my favorites) to create snack boxes with a selection of snacks like rolled-up deli meat, whole grain crackers, nuts, and sliced fruit and veggies.

If you assemble these containers and baggies at the beginning of the week, you'll have a whole week's worth of stress-free snacking. Better yet, enlist your kids to help and really foster independence!

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. She collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.