Five Perils Of Obligatory Snacking

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I’ll never live down my bad reputation as the anti-snack mom in a certain group. Okay, in pretty much every organized activity my kids have been in.

At least where we live, a group snack has become de rigueur. It doesn’t seem to matter if the little darlings are twirling at gymnastics or sitting on their butts during scouts, there’s built-in time to eat. It’s odd in our weight-obsessed culture that snacks and drinks are expected at nearly every kid-oriented event. It’s a perilous situation for several reasons.

Peril #1     Squeezing Mom’s Time Crunch a Little Tighter

When every family is expected to take turns bringing refreshments, no exception, we add yet another unavoidable task to our crazily busy days. In the endless motion we call our lives, one more thing to do is hardly beneficial. Especially when that one more thing is unnecessary.

Peril #2  Facing Requirements Only Satisfied by the Snack Aisle

If you have one child in a few activities or a few children in one activity each, your name probably makes a regular appearance on snack lists. Most of these lists have their own unyielding requirements. Milo’s afterschool drama club rules don’t permit pans or cups from home due to the burden of returning such items. Sophie’s soccer practice guidelines require only beverages in soft-sided juice boxes, because someone’s kid once hurled a hard plastic cup at an opposing team. And due to issues with allergens, little Juliana’s Mom & Me class will not permit any snacks without full ingredient labels, effectively ruling out homemade snacks.

This probably explains the phenomenal growth of snack-wrapped foods. No mess, no fuss, just bigger profits for the food industry.

Peril #3  Ramping up the Inter-Parental Judgment Game

Our parenting choices tend to be scrutinized (criticized) by other parents. Who knows why this has become a leading sport in the carpool lane? But this tendency seems to be amplified when families are required to bring drinks and snacks for an entire group, perhaps because other kids are directly affected. It may be ridiculous to wonder if your snack offering seems cheap, or ambitious, or hurried, or evidence of deep-seated mom cluelessness. But chances are you’ve heard other moms equate Bad Snack with Bad Parent. Or at least diss.

Recently overheard: “These much be a knock-off version of Oreos. Max won’t eat them. He’s only four but he has a discerning palate.”

It’s impossible to please everyone. One parent may bring agave-sweetened flax and acai berry bars with fresh carrot juice, the next day a parent may bring Fritos and Coke. Chances are, eyeballs will swivel sarcastically at both choices.

Peril #4  Promoting Low-Nutrient Eating

All this snacking teaches our kids to eat based on social cues rather than when they’re hungry. It normalizes the expectation that eating is necessary for fun. And of course very few of these snacks are remotely healthy.

Maybe due to mandatory snacking in kids’ activities, U.S. kids now eat candy, salty chips, and other junk foods three times a day. These snacks account for 27 percent of their daily calories. That means more than a quarter of their intake consists of foods that don’t contribute much nutrition to those growing brains and bodies. Most snack foods are what our parents called “empty calories” even if today’s bright labels scream “real fruit” or “all natural.” The snacking trend has been on a major upswing, with 98 percent of kids snacking outside of meals and some preschool-aged children snacking almost continuously throughout the day.

As nutritionists so patiently explain, when kids eat junk food and drink soda, their energy intake easily exceeds their energy output. They head toward obesity. More than a third of U.S. kids are overweight. The risks associated with extra body fat are long term and serious. In addition, junk food eaters are 60 percent more likely to suffer from depression.

Peril #5  Eliminating Another Chance to Practice Delayed Gratification

Marketers work hard to shape consumer behavior, quite effectively targeting even our youngest. They use findings from neuroscience to figure out just how many flashing images on a screen will hold attention. They use psychological research to create brand loyalty. The impact is so strong that the mere sight of fast food logos changes the way we reason.

We may live in an instant gratification culture, but learning to wait has critical long-term consequences. The well-known “Marshmallow Studies” conducted by Walter Mischel in the 60’s showed that young children who were able to wait for a marshmallow had a greater likelihood of success as they got older. Those successes included positive behavior, better academic performance, and good relationships.

How do you handle these snacking perils?

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11 thoughts on “Five Perils Of Obligatory Snacking

  1. I heart you.

    I used to vociferously argue against ritualized snacking at playdates, especially for toddlers, but was swiftly outvoted. A couple of times I had them at my house with a small number who was agnostic on the issue, the playdates went JUST FINE with no noshing.

    It became quickly apparent to me that the snacking was really for the adults, and mamas generally can’t eat without the wee ones getting that whatchagotcanihavesome look in their eye. It’s like the perpetually-dieting mamas use every excuse to eat (and woe be unto any of us who say no to the snack for any reason…INSTANT JUDGMENT!).

    My toddler was totally happy to go to parks without a play-interrupting snack until she’d spy other people with food. Then she’d go up to them all big-eyed and orphan-like and embarrass the hell out of me.

    I’m all for separating social from food, but I thought I was alone in that. Thanks so much for showing me that I’m not!

  2. “discerning palate”, Hah! I would have had a hard time not telling them to take a leap. I’m totally in your corner. We steer our children away from junk food and unnecessary snacking as much as possible. But…

    “In addition, junk food eaters are 60 percent more likely to suffer from depression.” — Don’t you think quoting a UK study of 55 year old government workers for this story is a little off?

  3. I agree with you and disagree with you. I agree that junk foods negatively affect children (as well as adults) But I do know that eating several small meals throughout the day is actually better for you than to just have 3 large meals a day. Especially in children and preschoolers. They have little tummies and will need something in them more often. This also applies to adults because it helps your metabolism continue to work at the best level. Of course what you put in those tummies matters. You don’t want snacking of empty calories. The best thing is to have fresh veggies or fruit along with water to snack on throughout the day. It doesn’t have to be hard.
    I also agree with you that the trend to have snacks at every event is annoying if you have to be in charge of snacks for everyone. I believe every parent should be responsible for their own child and send a snack for their child or not. Then you don’t have to worry about allergies or anything.
    Just my honest opinion.

  4. Thankfully, the only snacks we are required to do is when they are on her school calendar. Gymnastics doesn’t require we bring anything except to the meets. When my child takes snacks to school, we send healthy things. Grapes and cheese cubes or yogurt. What irks me is the things other parents send that I have no control over. Things like gummy snacks are complete crap. I have not let my daughter have these and she doesn’t like them. Just like soda. The one time she has tried it she didn’t like it. When we go to our gymnastics meets, we bring our own snack or just plan to have lunch afterwards. If someone gives her a junk snack I usually don’t let her eat it. Maybe that is mean, but guess what, she isn’t obese. She is a healthy weight.
    We also limit her TV. She gets to watch some on weekends and sometimes in the evening. We DVR her shows and skip the ads. I think controlling their exposure to the advertising and telling them NO and sticking to it would work wonders against the obesity issue.

  5. @Kimberly. I was writing more about organized group events but I see your point about playdates too. The social pressure to eat crappy food is bad enough, worse when offered by a friend or friend’s mom.

    @WhatAWaste. Your point is well taken on the study about depression. There are many more studies of adults and diets than kids and diets, which makes it difficult. I probably should have pointed out that childhood diets lead to long-term food choices, some of which can be linked to depression. My bad.

    @HMMM. Totally agree that healthy foods, eaten to satisfy hunger, are entirely legitimate at any age. We quite often eat non-traditional snacks. A little bit of a dinner entree warmed up for a late morning snack is very satisfying, veggie juice in a fancy cup along with cheese cubes is a fun evening snack. I’m just weary of those group events with some “yogurt-coated granola bar” that is itself about as plastic as the wrapper. At least candy is honest about its identity.

    @Jennifer D. You’re on to something with limited TV ads. The last study I read noted that it wasn’t overall TV time that impacted obesity, it was the overall exposure to advertising. I think that one needs to be parsed out a little but it’s interesting.

    As a side note. My sons never cared much about junk food, my daughter really really wanted it. I gave in every now and then so it didn’t become an obsession. She told me that when she got to be a teenager with money of her own, the first thing she did was buy some kind of Little Debbie Snack Cake. She took a Mom-defiant bite, hated the disgusting sweetness, took another bite, felt her stomach roiling, and threw it out. She laughingly tells me I’ve ruined her for crappy food.

  6. Thank you for writing this! Now that my girls are older (HS and JH), the number of events to which we are required to bring snacks has dropped dramatically. All through elementary school though, I remember signing up whenever the list came around.

    I was the mom that often brought organic, home made something something (or fresh fruit) and yes, I endured a number of eye rolls as a result. However, I rolled right back when those moms brought crappy processed food-like snacks. 😉

    It sounds weird, but the best thing that could have happened to our eating habits is having to rethink every bite of food in order to accomodate my daughter’s (then 5) restrictions. Almost everything that comes from a factory has been off limits for 10 years.

    There are so many easy, quick and healthy options (fresh fruit and water bottles!) that it is really too bad so many parents don’t think outside the “box” or juice box.


  7. How do I handle snack time? I don’t. When asked I inform whatever group it may be that I am a single mom of two, full-time college student, full-time employee who receives no child support whatsoever and that it is not within my budget to provide snack foods for 20-30 children on a regular basis. I have to force myself to remember that I provide the best what I can for my children with my resources and nobody can make me feel guilty about not meeting their standards. *I will admit, it is very hard to remember that sometimes* I also know that my children are not going to starve in between one activity and the next. So, to find the happy medium between feeling guilty from refraining and getting pissed at the crap being shoveled into my kid’s hands, when I’m asked I bring gallon of water and a big bag of apples or carrots. Healthy and cheap. Plus, for any of the other children who have discerning palates and choose not to eat what is provided to them, I’m sure they have a backup snack in the car.

  8. I’m not sure when it got to be this bad. Aside from the tradition of handing out birthday candy at school, I don’t remember growing up with snacks at every event. Maybe that’s because my mother didn’t sign me up for activities other than piano lessons….

  9. I’m a cake decorator at Wal-mart and I’m still amazed by all of the parents who have to come buy their cupcakes or cookies or donuts for their kids birthday because you’re not allowed to make anything at home any more. What the heck? Our stuff is terrible for you, and it’s not something I’d want any future kids of mine to eat all of the time. I’d rather make something at home where I can control the ingredients.

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