The Difference Between a Snack and a Treat—and Why It Matters

Are your kids mixing up snacks and treats? (Are you?) Here's how to find a healthy balance.
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Sometimes when my kids ask for a snack I have a sneaking suspicion they're actually angling for a treat. But snacks and treats are not the same thing. Here's what I mean and why it really matters.

Snacks are supposed to provide some nourishment between meals. Treats are supposed to be every-once-in-a-while fun foods. But food manufacturers have invented thousands of products full of sugar, sodium, and artificial ingredients (and lacking much nutrition) that are marketed as perfect between-meal noshes.

When it comes to kids, a lot of their snacks are looking a little too much like treats. Case in point: The snack served when kids gather in a group for sports, clubs, church, playdates, and camp is all too often cookies, chips, cupcakes, gummy fruit snacks, and fruit punch.

Giving kids so many packaged snacks (read: treats) may come at a cost: In a University of Michigan study, preschoolers who recognized more food brands such as M&Ms, Keebler cookies, and Pringles potato chips tended to have higher BMIs than those who didn't know as many brands. The researchers say that children who develop a taste and preference early on for what they call "obesogenic" branded foods may be at risk for overweight and obesity.

Packaged snacks are appealing: They're engineered to taste good, they come in colorful packages, and they're easy to eat. But we're doing kids a disservice if we teach them that those foods are what snacking looks like.

When parents ask me about snacks, I tell them that most snacks should look like "meal foods." If snacks are always brightly colored, hyper-sweet or salty foods, how can we expect our kids to come to the table and eat more challenging (and probably, to their eyes) boring foods? Ever spent an hour preparing dinner only to have your child turn up his nose and ask for a granola bar or squeeze yogurt instead?

If you're caught in this trap with your kids, slowly start phasing out so many packaged snacks in favor of more meal-food snacks. Some ideas: half a sandwich, carrots and cheese, hummus and cucumbers, apple slices with peanut butter, a smoothie, dish of yogurt with fruit, even a small cup of soup or a little portion of reheated dinner leftovers.

If you want to raise healthy eaters (and snackers) who like the taste of fresh, whole foods, it's also smart to limit your child's exposure to food branding and advertising. In previous research, kindergarteners who were exposed to more food advertising ate more of those branded foods by fifth grade. Another study found that preschoolers preferred the taste of branded foods over the exact same foods that were unbranded. Since young children don't distinguish between brand mascots (like Ronald McDonald) and other fantasy characters (like Dora or Elsa), they may be more vulnerable to the lure of food advertising—and of those foods.

Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, and mom of two who blogs at Real Mom Nutrition. She is the author ofThe Snacktivist's Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. She also collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families. You can follow her on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, and Instagram. In her spare time, she loads and unloads the dishwasher. Then loads it again.

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