"The childhood obesity epidemic is clearly related to the extra calories kids are consuming today during snacktime," says Barry Popkin, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina School of Public Health. Even worse, experts say, this trend spans the ages -- from toddlers to teenagers.
Trouble is, these days kids aren't only snacking more often, but when they do, they also take in much bigger portions and more fattening foods and drinks. As a result, American children are consuming more calories between meals than they ever have.
Take a typical snack for a toddler: A small box of animal crackers and a 6.75-ounce juice box have some 350 calories -- about a third of the calories a 2-year-old needs in an entire day. Which adds up. On average, the typical American 2-year-old consumes about 1,250 calories a day. But he needs only 1,000.
A generation ago, says Popkin, kids got less than 20 percent of their daily calories from snacks. Today, it's about 25 percent -- and rising.
And when toddlers and preschoolers snack too often -- and on the wrong foods -- they're setting the stage for a lifetime struggle with their weight, and their health. "The roots of childhood obesity take hold between the ages of one and five," says William Klish, M.D., a pediatric gastroenterologist at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston.
Of course, babies are naturally chubby. But once a child starts toddling, by about his first birthday, he should slowly lose body fat and gain lean body tissue (mostly muscle) over the course of the next several years. When that doesn't happen, a dangerous cycle is set in motion. If a preschooler is allowed to become overweight, he'll develop too much body fat and won't accumulate as much lean body mass as he needs.
Without enough lean body mass, his metabolism will stall, and he won't burn as many calories, and as much fat, as he should. That, in turn, makes it physiologically easier for him to gain even more weight. The result? "In grade school he'll put on body fat more rapidly than other kids," says Dr. Klish. "If we let toddlers and preschoolers become overweight, on the whole we're condemning them to obesity in grade school and beyond."
Because here's the reality: Overweight kids tend to grow up to be overweight adults.
Robert A. Barnett, Parenting's health editor, is the dad of a 9-year-old girl and the author of several books on food and nutrition.
Changing bad habitsMany parents realize that their children should be snacking on more nutritious foods. It's just that with our busy lives, we don't know how, or where, to start.
Charlotte Bush, mom of Fiona, 16 months, of Williamsburg, Virginia, notices many kids downing fries and soda at the playground come snacktime. "I hear a lot of my mom friends say, 'I wish she would drink something other than soda.' And I think, 'Why did you give her soda in the first place?'" Tamara Zappa is also perplexed by other parents' food choices -- including her husband's: "He just introduced our two-year-old, Henry, to snack chips," says the mom from Phoenix. "But I think that's too young."
The problem is, once a child's unhealthy snacking habits are set, they can be very difficult to break. "We know that kids'eating patterns, tastes, and preferences form in the first two years of life," explains Margaret Bentley, Ph.D., a professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.
And snacking can become almost continuous, says Dr. Klish. "The minute a child is upset, bored, or tired, out comes that snack bag," he says. And so we parents succumb because, more often than not, we're just trying to survive that car ride or grocery-store run.
Kids' between-meal eating habits weren't always this bad. A generation ago, when a mom wanted to give her child a snack, she most likely had to prepare something -- spread peanut butter on bread or peel a banana. And a snack used to be a discreet event, usually consumed at the kitchen table. Not these days. "I feel like I can't leave the house without a stash of snacks," says Megan Gorman, a mom of two girls, ages 4 and 3, in Melrose Park, Pennsylvania. "I carry them in my purse, in the car, wherever I go. Like most moms I know, I've conditioned my kids to expect them whenever the first hunger pang hits."
And they do.
It's in the packagingDo kids even need to nibble between meals? Absolutely. Snacks are essential for children, say experts, because they have small stomachs. And since kids can't eat much at one time, they need to nibble more frequently. But whatever snacking your child does in the course of a day should provide only about 20 percent of her total calories.
Nutritionists recommend that toddlers get three snacks a day; preschoolers and school-age kids up to age 8, two; kids 9 and older, one. But even more important than how much children nibble on between meals is what they nibble on.
The first step, say experts: Stop thinking about snacks as something that's always prepackaged. That's because, in most cases, a prepackaged snack is sweet or salty -- in other words, calorie-packed. That should be called a treat.
And a treat should be a once-in-a-while sort of thing -- an ice cream after a Saturday-afternoon soccer game or a few cookies during a visit to Grandma's house, not something that your child expects every day after school. Says Zappa of her son, Henry: "His grandpa lets him have soda," she says. "And he gets to have some at restaurants on special occasions." But it's not every day.
Snacking how-to'sBecause between-meal munching often adds up to a substantial portion of young kids' diets, even small changes in what snacks you serve -- and when and how you serve them -- can make a big difference. In fact, you can alter a child's entire day's nutrients. Try to:
Serve more fruits and veggies. Kids don't get near the daily two to three cups of fruits and vegetables they should. "By replacing calorically dense snacks like chips and cookies with fruits and vegetables, you'll decrease the amount of empty calories your child takes in," says Dr. Klish. And you'll replace them with lots of vitamins and nutrients.
Children learn to love fruits and veggies when they're exposed to them early and often -- and they're a part of the whole family's diet. Make a habit of buying fresh fruits and vegetables in season, and taking a few minutes every day to wash and cut them up so they're easily accessible in your refrigerator. Add low-calorie dip for variety.When Theresa Andrikanich of Perry, Ohio, gives her 2-year-old daughter, Lauren, a snack, it's often fruit that's fun. "We'll create a smiley face with peach slices on the plate and grape quarters in the middle," she says.
"I cut up oranges, apples, carrots, and red and yellow peppers, and I put them out for my girls while I'm making dinner and they're having some downtime with a puzzle or video," says Maureen Boland, a mom of two, ages 7 and 1, in Cranford, New Jersey. "You'd be amazed how many fruits and veggies kids will eat when they're really hungry and the food's right in front of them."
Make him drink his milk... and he'll get much-needed protein, vitamins D and A, calcium, and magnesium. Fruit juices and sweetened beverages like soda -- which often replace the milk a child should drink -- are a major source of calories for young kids these days. Calories they don't need. Even 100 percent fruit juice should be limited to 4 to 6 ounces a day until your child is 7 years old, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. For kids 7 and up, keep it to no more than 8 to 12 ounces a day.
Children between 2 and 5 should drink about 16 ounces of low-fat milk (1 percent or skim) a day -- that's four half-cup (or 4-ounce) servings. Kids over 6 should take in three cups daily. Encourage yours to drink it at mealtimes -- and have a glass with an afternoon snack (and water in between).
If you can't get him to drink as much milk as he should, be creative. Chocolate is fine. Try strawberry syrup. Or add fresh or frozen fruit in a blender to make a smoothie. Low-fat yogurt is another option: "My son loves the drinkable kind," says Linda Abraham, a mom of four in Great Falls, Virginia. "It's as good as any treat to him."
Low-fat cheese slices are a healthy dairy option as well. Pair them with apple slices for an apple-cheese sandwich.
Start a routine. To create some structure to eating habits, serve snacks at the table, at around the same time each day, and have your child sit down when she eats.
Kathy Feusse, a mom of three in Clearwater, Nebraska, gives her kids a snack every day at about 3 p.m. Many days, she'll do it while they're coloring. "I tell them, 'These are the choices you have now,'" says Feusse, "'and if they aren't good enough, then you can wait until supper.'"
Resist the urge to let your child spend the morning with a bagel in one hand and a sippy cup of juice in the other. Instead say, "Play now, and then you'll have your snack when you're ready to sit and take a break."
Let him get hungry. It's okay to teach your child that he can't be fed at a moment's notice or on every ten-minute trip. "Too often, parents expect that their children should never complain of hunger," says Dr. Klish. "But hunger is a normal thing. Your child can certainly wait an hour to eat."
Of course, he might gripe. But then he'll have a good dinner because he's hungry. And he just might be thirsty. So encourage him to drink water often between meals.
Serve kid-size snack portions. Most children under 12 need smaller amounts of food in between -- and during -- meals. But usually if you put a large amount in front of them, they'll eat it.
Offer your child small amounts, and if she's still hungry when she's done eating, then you can give her seconds. The key is, she's getting good nutrition -- and not empty, fat-packed calories -- when she does fill up.
Some sample servings for a child between the ages of 2 and 6: three or four crackers with a slice of cheese, or a sliced orange half with a four-ounce cup of low-fat yogurt.
Encourage him to eat right when you're not around. Of course, you can't control everything your child snacks on once you send him to preschool, for instance. But you can fill his lunch box with healthy snacks every day.
If you have a regular babysitter, talk about what's appropriate for daytime snacking. And make sure you have plenty of good-for-you options, such as raw baby carrots and mini-fruit cocktails, at the ready.
Think of the snacks your child nibbles on in a new way: as mini-meals; an opportunity to round out her diet with a variety of healthy foods she missed during mealtime. After all, the only time you'll have a lot of influence over what she eats is when she's little. So make it nutritious. And it just might get her snacking smart for a lifetime.
Kid-friendly snacksBesides apples and raw baby carrots, here are some nutritious options:
If your child needs more fruit, try giving him...
¨ö cup dried raisins, dates, or apricots*
¨ö cup fruit cocktail (packed in fruit juice)**
¨ö cup applesauce (no added sugar)
¨ö cup mashed bananas or berries with low-fat yogurt
1 baked apple
one 8-ounce fruit smoothie
If your child needs more vegetables, try giving him...
¨ö cup sliced sweet peppers, broccoli, or cucumber*
¨ö 1 cup raw snow peas**
¨ö 1 small sweet potato, microwaved
¨÷ cup avocado, sliced or mashed
¨ù cup tomato sauce with ¨ö cup whole-wheat pasta
If your child needs more protein, try giving him...
3 thin turkey slices**
2 to 3 tablespoons of hummus on 1 slice whole-grain bread
2 tablespoons peanut butter (thinly spread) on sliced ¨ö apple**
2 to 3 tablespoons white-bean spread on whole-wheat mini bagel
If your child needs more dairy, try giving him...
one 8-ounce glass of 1 percent milk (or whole for a child under 2)
¨÷ cup low-fat cheddar cheese
1 part-skim mozzarella stick (1 ounce)**
1 cup low-fat fruit yogurt
1 cup milk shake made with low-fat frozen yogurt
If your child needs more whole grains, try giving him...
1 slice whole-wheat toast with a pat of peanut butter or jam
1 slice whole-grain cinnamon toast
1 cup whole-grain cereal (dry) such as Cheerios, Kashi, or Wheat Chex
1 small whole-cornmeal muffin
1 cup whole-grain pretzels*
3 cups air-popped popcorn*
*For kids age 4 and up; **For kids under 4, cut up into pea-sized pieces