Loading up on fun snacks from every imaginable source and then picking at the nutritious food that your parents serve at meals is a normal passage of childhood.
But should it be?
Constant snacking is interfering with most children’s (and adult’s!) ability to consume appropriate balanced meals. and interfering with their ability to focus on something other than food for an extended amount of time.
The worry about packing food, making meals that aren’t consumed, and catering to picky eaters is interfering with our ability to not only go on outings free from the burdens of having center every activity around food, but also it is contributing to food waste, and preventing us from consuming what we really need to be eating, when we need to eat it.
Food should not be our only fun
“Are you doing soccer this year?” “Yeah, but just because I like the snacks”
When we are putting something in our mouth constantly, whether it’s a bite of candy from Grandma’s purse, popcorn at an afternoon movie, samples of ingredients during meal preparation, a few favored snacks after a big grocery shopping trip, crackers at play dates, or yes, snacks after soccer games, we are displacing other fun activities that could be happening.
The focus on snacks, and hope for ‘good’ snacks is preventing in our children from being able (and, let’s be honest, adults too!) to fully engage in physical or creative activities. Food, especially sugar and processed carbs, is not a benign substance. It actually starts a biological process (read more here) that sends signals to your brain to keep consuming it.
These signals are a distraction. They are distracting our kids, they are distracting us adults, and they threaten to rule our lives.
But we still need to eat, so what do we do about it?
Of course I’m not advocating that we don’t eat. I’m just advocating that we take a break from eating. For us, that means cutting out meals and unscheduled snacking. For the most part my children eat breakfast at 7:30, lunch at 11:30, a piece of fruit after school at 3:30 if dinner is going to be late, and dinner at 5:30 or 6. That’s it. I eat lunch and dinner, and have tea after the kids go to bed.
Doing this has freed up our life to LIVE, not focus on eating.
Two Square Meals a Day
It’s not just my kids- I’m healthier when I eat 2 square meals a day. That’s right. I don’t snack either, and I skip breakfast too.
The same people who championed grains, sugar and a high carb diet started the myth that links eating more small meals and being healthier.
When people who fund nutrition studies are the same people selling food, the results tend to skew towards finding results that encourage:
- Consumers to consume more of their product.
- Consuming what is inexpensive to produce.
To be honest, every time I have weaned a toddler, I’ve gained weight. With three kids who were breastfeed into toddlerhood, I have spent about 8 years requiring extra calories for breastfeeding and pregnancy. I got used to bigger meals, and since most of the food that we eat is not only nutrient-dense, it also is calorie dense, it can add up.
This nutrient density is a great support to growing kids, but the calorie density means that each meal can easily be 1000 calories, and three of those are more than most women will need.
I feel better skipping breakfast, having a solid lunch with my toddler before his nap, and eating a decent family dinner with the family.
Part of lightening up on the focus of food means that we can make exceptions to our ‘food rules’ for special occasions, or to work within our culture.
I LOVE going out to eat breakfast, so when we have guests from out of town, or a celebration in our own family, we often do that. Skipping breakfast isn’t a law, it’s just a general rule that works for my body.
Special Occasions: This means real special occasions- someone close to us is having a birthday, major holidays, weddings, etc. On special occasions we eat happily what is served (still avoiding any food allergies of course) when it is served. For us that means that we usually won’t be as hungry for our next meal, or the eating patterns of the day are disrupted. But these occasions happen infrequently, and they are an exception not a rule.
Take care to distinguish what is a real special occasion (Thanksgiving! Your sister’s wedding!) vs what is an excuse to eat unnecessary junk food (Chocolate cake day, Friday, someone lost a tooth, the coffee shop has a new pastry you haven’t tried, Tuesday, etc)
Like it or not, snacks very much are a part of our culture. In some cases I’ve taught my kids to just say ‘no thank you’ or bring something they know is not allowed to me. Some places we use this: The hair cutting place, soccer, camps, religious activities, and occasional school functions.
In others, like the snack time at school that is also designed as a social activity, I provide a low-calorie snack. Since they are low-calorie (about 50), these snacks don’t interfere with my children’s hunger for their actual meal, and lunch boxes still come back with the nutrient-dense food having been eaten. Our go-tos: Carrot sticks and sea weed packs.
Hormones (mine) and growth spurts (them) can dictate extra ‘true’ hunger. There are two days a month that I am absolutely starving, and I can choose to eat more or be hangry (grumpy due to hunger) those days. I choose to eat more. Likewise, when children grow, sometimes they are bottomless pits and happily consume loads and loads of nutrient-dense food. These children don’t pick at their meals and then ask for fruit, nuts, or whatever after meals. These children that are growing and legitimately hungry will eat 4 scrambled eggs, and then still be searching the kitchen for more. So I feed them.
Physical Activity: Hiking is another place that I break from my no snacking rule. Usually when we get to the hike destination, the kids get a piece of fruit, an Epic Bar, or a Lara Bar, or if it’s around lunchtime I’ll pack a picnic lunch that is higher in carbs than usual. Unless it’s lunchtime, I have no problem hiking (or running) fasted. This seems to be pretty individual, though in general the hormones produced during exercise naturally suppress hunger (source) though the gatorade commercials may have influenced you to think otherwise ;)
Other exceptions: If you have hormonal issues, are under the care of a physician for chronic health problems, have a history of disordered eating, are an athlete who engages in vigorous activity daily, or any other exceptions to the average person, you will want to seek advice from a qualified professional. I’m talking to the average moderately-healthy family here.
Benefits of Not Eating All Day Long
Our culture feasts. We don’t fast. We are often confused about what true hunger is, confusing the sensation of ‘I could eat’ with ‘I’m hungry!’ or we’ve been on the blood sugar high/low roller coaster our whole life. We see every bite as a way to have exactly what we want, distract us from our emotions, procrastinate on the work we should be doing, or as a way to receive pleasure. Those things all have a place occasionally, but everyday food consumption should not fill all those needs at the expense of our health.
In addition to being hungry and then satisfied with our balanced meals, and happier about activity between meal and happier about consuming balanced meals, there are biological processes that happen when we are fasting.
Fasting has actually been studied extensively and can mean going 3-5 hours between meals, 12 hours overnight, or doing an extended fast for days at a time. Though our culture recoils at this idea, historically fasting has been used in most religions, cultures, and by necessity due to food shortage.
When we are in a fasted state, or practice occasional fasting there are benefits to the body:
- Risk of diabetes goes down. (source)
- Immunosuppression is reduced. (source)
- Cancer risk is lowered. (source)
- Toxicity from chemotherapy is reduced. (source) Your body detoxifies during fasts (even the overnight fast, which may be why sleep is so important for detoxification; we aren’t eating if we are sleeping).
- Tissue regeneration and repair is sped up. (source)
- Appetite is reduced, suggesting that if we are in a pattern of fasting occasionally, whether it is for a few hours or occasionally fasting for 24 or more hours at a time it will become easier. This may be helpful for people who are ‘always hungry’ yet constantly go over their calorie needs in attempt to satisfy hunger. (source– gherlin is your hunger hormone, and is reduced with fasting)
Healthy Bodies Crave Healthy Food and Healthy Activity
This isn’t going to be for everyone, but it might be a missing piece of a puzzle for some. And others may be relieved to realize that they can go do errands for 3 hours without packing baggies, cups, and containers of snacks for the kids.
Not snacking produces freedom.
Do you and your children crave healthy food and happily eat a diet that includes a variety of vegetables, protein, fats, carbs, and probiotics?
Can you focus on fun or necessary activities without constantly thinking about your next meal?
Do you wake up with energy and sleep well?
Do you enjoy activities with your family and feel yourself getting stronger with increased activity?
Well in that case, what you’re doing is working for you :) If not, a break from the feasting- even just for 4 hours at a time between meals and 12 at night, might be the (free!) answer you’re looking for.
- Your Bugs are Screaming For Sugar: How Gut Flora is Making Your Kids PICKY
- The Microbiome/Craving Connection: Fix your gut flora to lose weight
- Making Room for Healthy Changes: Cut Out Snacking – more on why we don’t snack, from when my kids were younger.