Preschoolers and the Snack Police

Years ago I realized that I am not good at moderation, so it’s better for me to just not have something than to have it around and be tempted to overindulge.  When it comes to snacks, I don’t buy bulk chocolate chips, or any other chips for that matter, and I tend not to keep snack food in the house.

If we have snacks, they are homemade from scratch snacks or fruit and vegetable snacks.  That works for me, but I’ve been wondering if it’s really working for my kids.

Recently Josh pointed out a behavior he was concerned about: the kids go to his parents’ house and ask for a snack.  My mother-in-law gives them a snack and then they ask for more.  And more.  And more.  Until they have eaten WAY too much.  This is pretty rude behavior, and it also makes me wonder why they are tempted to eat too much when they aren’t hungry.

The other time this happens is when we are at someone else’s house for playgroup or a play date.  The playgroup mamas often have fun (but still fairly healthy) snacks like goldfish crackers and animal crackers and instead of just having one helping, my kids ask for more and more and more.  Why do they do this?

I’m beginning to wonder if my keeping snacks out of the house entirely has created a problem for the kids, such that they see snacks as an all or nothing situation and feel the need to eat as much as they can in case they never get a fun snack again. I wonder if, in my quest to avoid overindulging, I have actually created a situation that primes them for overindulging.  I think I may have accidentally put my kids in snack famine mode.

A friend told me about an experiment where children were allowed unfettered access to M&Ms for a period of weeks.  At first they ate way to many M&Ms, but after they realized that the M&Ms would always be there, they slowed down and just ate a few here and there.  Does the knowledge that good/special food is always there promote moderation?

Maybe I should try keeping some fun snacks around and doling them out in small portions regularly.  Perhaps that would help the kids avoid the temptation to eat too many snacks when they are elsewhere.

On the other hand, having snacks around would force me (and Josh) to avoid eating them too much and limit ourselves to small portions too.

What do you think?  Do you have a snack policy for yourself or for your kids?

Photo credit: Nicholas Erwin on Flickr

25 thoughts on “Preschoolers and the Snack Police

  1. It’s the same for us. I offer pieces of fruit, a drink of milk or something along those lines if the boys get hungry between meals. But they know that their grandparents’ houses are the land of tootsie rolls, donuts and gum and they load up on them every time just like your kiddos.

    We’ll have the occasional cake or candy at our house though. And I always tell them candy is for special occasions like birthdays, Easter, Halloween and visits to Grandpa’s house.

    I say stick with what you’re doing now and keep reinforcing the idea of moderation.

  2. My kids get one small snack a day, always right after they wake up from their nap. Usually it’s a few crackers, animal or otherwise, or a long pretzel rod, or sometimes, if I know it’s going to be a while until dinner, I’ll give them each a bowl of popcorn.

  3. Different kids have different tastes. I have two that love sweets and can’t get enough and two that are known to often walk away from dessert or refuse cookies. You have to weigh that in.

    We have two snacks a day – one “healthy” and filling (apples and peanut butter, or graham crackers with peanut butter, or similar), and one quick and more processed – goldfish, other crackers, fruit snacks, granola bars, or (NOT and) an occasional piece of candy. (As an aside, we’ve found that the sweetest food eaten all day is great for afternoon snack – the sugars’ effects carry them just a little while until dinner, and are all worn off by bedtime 🙂 )

    We are intentionally teaching our children to be moderate with food, and not withholding much, but instead focusing on healthy eating habits: you may have dessert or something sweet, but only a little, and only once a day or less. Sweets are not good for you, when we have them, we have just a little bit.

    Of course, we have to model this too. We have to let the box of cookies sit in the cabinet for a long time and eat them slowly. We have to only have 1 glass of alcohol. We have to not heap our plates when we make our favorite dishes and have seconds, too. It is at times, hard, but we hold each other accountable, and we talk about it with our kids frequently. We see the sad and destructive effects of overeating a little more closely than we’d like, and that serves as a strong motivation to chart a different course for our family. The hope is that we are laying a good foundation for them for the future. Check back in 15 years and see if it worked…. 😉

    1. I think the part where we would have to model the healthy behavior would be really hard. Not like parenting has been a breeze up to this point, but, you know. 🙂

      Interesting thought about having the sugary snack in the afternoon so it has worn off by bedtime. Thanks!

  4. I say: Have “fun” but fairly nutritious snacks in your house, and allow your children (and yourselves) to eat them in moderation. I have commented before on the unhealthy perspective on food (particularly junk food) that I developed as a child and struggled with as an adult, and which I attribute to the tight controls my mother kept on eating in our house (we were on a near constant junk-food famine). I *was* the child who went to friends’ houses and begged for junk food….and gorged upon it. I clearly remember doing so. And being obsessed about it.
    Now that I am a grown-up with my very own children, we buy it all: Teddy Grahams, Goldfish, Nilla Wafers, even…yes, I confess…fruit snacks. Interestingly, my children are not huge snackers, and when they *are* hungry at 3pm, they will as often choose a banana or apples and peanut butter as they will choose the “junk” food.
    Give it a try. Worse case scenario, if they are still gorging on Quaker Chewy Granola bars and Cheez-its after a month of introducing them to your pantry, then you can slowly stop buying them and revert to your previous practice of abstinence….

    1. That’s interesting that your kids don’t choose the fun snacks. How did you break your own perspective? I’m a little afraid that if I introduce these things to the pantry, a year from now Josh and I will have to go on The Biggest Loser to make up for it!

  5. There is also a study of kids who are used to having “junk” food in the house and kids who have never had it in the house. The children without in a setting with art, craft, fun activities chose to stand at the chip table and hoarded food.

    I once, caught my oldest daughter(at 3 yrs old) hiding and bingeing on Easter chocolate behind a chair. It broke my heart. From then on I always have a small amount of candy/baked foods available on the kitchen counter. That daughter is now 11 and is so good at moderation. I’ve even gone as far as letting them keep their Halloween candy in their rooms. I’ve told them they can eat it all at once, get sick and have none for later, or space it out. Every year at Halloween I’m throwing away candy from the previous year.

  6. Hmmmm….I’m such a purist. I think I would keep keeping on with what you’re doing, but make the snacks more substantial and/or fun in a homemade way. Include special treats, like homemade coconut oil-based “almond joy”, where you have complete control over the quality of the ingredients. Proceeded foods are a nutritional void whether eaten in moderation or not.

    Your commenter, Ainsley, has me a little worried about purism, in spite of the nutritional void. I try with all my might to have lucious, filling and from-scratch foods in my home with the goal that my children will know the crap for what it really is. Homemade ice cream blows the socks off of store-bought ice cream. Fun food, “junk” food, can be made at home, out of whole-food ingredients.

    As far as my boys go, I do allow them to graze when we are out and about, and there have been times when they’ve vetoed things themselves, like a processed Kraft Single. Rejected. But Cheerios or Bunny Crackers? They love it.

    Definitely worth contemplation.

    1. They eat plenty of food for their sizes, and a variety of foods, lots of different tastes and textures, etc. They seem to like the regular food we have. I don’t think it’s about them being hungry or dissatisfied with what they get at home, they just go crazy when they get stuff they DON’T have at home.

  7. I feel like we’re all over the map on this one. I’ve had a 5lb bag of M&Ms (gift from my mom) in the cupboard for over 3 months now. But the 9 boxes Girl Scout Cookies were gone in less than a week despite my attempts to freeze some. I devoured a 1/4 of a box of whole wheat Ritz crackers yesterday afternoon. We buy ice cream probably every other week for us. Kids eat mostly Cheerios, raisens, Graham crackers, those cracker sandwich packs, granola bars, fig newtons, fruit, and goldfish for snack. So that’s what we have on hand and I don’t feel like the kids eat too much (but my kids are small eaters to begin with) so maybe I’m a moderation mom. However, I don’t buy the really junky food expect very special occasions – candy, cookies, cake, pie, chips, etc. So compared to Grandmas house, we’re depriving the children. There is moderation in quantity as you have discussed but also moderation in the decree of “junkiness” of the snack. Also, cookies would tempt me but goldfish, eh, not so much. So is there any food that you’d be okay with the kids having and that they would like but that wouldn’t bother you if you had it around the house?

  8. I was brought up in a veeeery purist household when it came to food (especially snacks) and it was a very, very tough transition to the ‘real world’ there for a while…grandparents’ houses, elementary school, friends’ houses, etc. were all prime snacky free-for-alls. My husband, on the other hand, was raised the exact opposite way with snacks at the ready whenever. He has much better self-control than I, oddly enough. At our house, we kind of do the ‘best of’ the snacky foods available…Goldfish, pretzels, some granola/fiber bars, some natural fruit snacks and fruit leather, etc. Breakfast cereal (like Chex and honey nut Cheerios) are big hits as welll. We also are big ice cream fans and will have that about once a week. My kids are pretty young still but I’ve noticed that when we’re out and about, they aren’t nearly as into the food provided which is a marked change from MY childhood. Notable exception: Grandma and Grandpa’s house, where there are these delicious morsels known as “rice krispie treats”… *huge eyeroll* 😉 Who knows, though – maybe if we went places where less normative kid snack items were around like chips or candy, my kids would go just as nuts as I did. 😀

  9. We’re definitely in the moderation camp. Our children are 10, 7 and 8 months. We use a similar idea as the previous commentor about having one healthy snack and one fun snack a day. They’re learning that a piece of fruit fills you up a whole lot more than a handful of M and M’s.

    But anyway, what’s with the grandparents houses??? We have the same problems with both sides of our family. My parents gorge the kids with Yoohoo, Capri Sun and any processed boxed thing they can get their hands on and my husband’s mom gives them hot chocolate as their drink with a meal (and doesn’t count it as a snack) and then gives them some super sugary dessert on top of it. Have they lost their minds?? 🙂

  10. Hey Cat, This is a fascinating post. I don’t have kids, as you know, but I have a super strong opinion on food issues. My view is that parents shouldn’t teach kids to follow arbitrary rules, but rather to listen to their body. Remember in college you used to tease me about filling my plate and eating only a third of it? And I told you it was because I wasn’t part of the clean plate club? I don’t get why parents teach kids to continue putting food in their body after their stomach tells them. I know it would be wasted otherwise. But any food put in your body after you are full is also 100% wasteful. Besides, it makes it so kids don’t learn to listen to their bodies. Rather they learn to follow a rule.

    I think the best thing my parents did was their approach to food. We could have anything we wanted, absolutely anything, and the excitement of “bad” foods immediately wore off because nothing was bad. The only foods we couldn’t have were the ones that weren’t available because they were out of season. So, during my childhood, the things I cried over (and the things that I over-ate) were cucumbers, watermelon, and apricots. That’s what was “special”.
    My mom always had both sweets and fruits/veg on the dining table at all hours of the day, and my brother and I would go for the healthy bowl, which was much more colorful.

    Also, with respect to when we eat, what we eat, the rule was “listen to your body.” From an early age, we learned that our body knew what it needed, and that’s why I always stopped eating a third of the way through my plate at college. Of course, at the beginning of such a philosophy the kid tries to “trick” you by saying, “well, I NEED chocolate then!” But that only lasts what, a month? A dozen or so stomach aches for a lifetime of learning not to over-indulge is well worth it. For me, after a while, I realized that all the food would always be there, so at meals I would say, “I think I need lots of salad today” or “I’ll just have the chicken.” No one freaked out if I said, “No broccoli today.” So I never hated broccoli. No one made me sit at the table and force it down my throat for hours (like I’ve seen done in the movies 🙂
    Anyway, so I was no longer worried about not getting anything, because it became established that my mom wasn’t the decider of what goes in my body. I was. So I’d just have the chocolate when I felt like it. And usually, I didn’t feel like it more than once a day (even though I have a huge sweet tooth, you remember how I used to toss half eaten ice cream buckets and stuff, right?!).

    Also, a funny story from Daniel: he has a kid that comes to youth group, and the first thing he does is go to the soda machine and stick his head under it and turn on the tap! Guess what the rules are at HIS house!

    1. I do remember the ice cream thing and thinking you were crazy, but that’s a better way to do it than eating the whole thing if you don’t want it. I think my issue with the only eating 1/3 of your plate was why did you put it there in the first place if you knew you’d just throw it away, but I think you had an answer for that I just forget what it was.

      Although I agree with your theory in theory, I am concerned that it doesn’t work that way in practice in every case. I think some people have a harder time knowing when to say when than others. For example, there are a lot of overweight and obese people who presumably did not grow up on nutrition lockdown. I don’t remember being deprived as a kid (we usually had chips and ice cream and snacks on hand, I always had chips and fruit snacks and whatnot in my lunch) but I still have an all or nothing problem.

      Maybe, as Anna pointed out above, the key is to MODEL moderation to the kids. Then again, my parents are slim and not given to eating too much or too little and yet I still don’t throw away the rest of the ice cream.

      Which raises another problem: the budget. In order to make your idea work here, where there are approximately 400 thousand different types of food available all the time, we’d have to spend a lot more. So, my kids get homemade bagels and muffins and oatmeal bars at home, but then they go to another house and eat too many animal crackers. But if we had animal crackers, what if they went to a house with oreos? Do I need to have oreos too? Or should I poll my friends to see what’s going to be in their pantries so I can innoculate my kids with that food before we go over there?

      Or is there another way to teach moderation in kids who may have some genetic predisposition to be feast-or-famine types? Maybe I’m reading too much into this, but I don’t want to set my kids up for failure.

      1. I JUST saw that you responded here. Sorry!
        Anyway, my excuse for getting all that food was simply that I wanted to try them all. I’m not saying I was the perfect 20-year-old 😉 I just had a whole different bad habit. I used to want to try everything on offer, and it seemed inappropriate to ask the server for 1/3 of a steak… stupid excuse, I know. 🙂

        Also, the throwing away ice cream thing was because we didn’t have dorm-room freezers. The tub of Rocky Road ice cream was like $2, which was roughly the same as a cone, but I SO preferred the rocky road, so I figured, if I eat roughly the amount of one cone, the rest was bonus anyway. Again, crappy reasoning.

        Excellent point about the craving transferring to worse things… (rest of my response is in that other email).

  11. I like this post because it has me thinking. I grew up in a pretty restricted environment food wise. I used to cry because I didn’t get fruit roll ups in my lunch. Like you, I’ve struggled with the all or nothing problem as an adult, but it has gotten better in the last few years. I tend to be an extremist and my thoughts about food have been to go way healthy all the time. But I have wondered if it would cause my children to crave it more…forbidden fruit, you know? I’m going to have to keep pondering this one, but I am thinking about serving some processed foods maybe once a week or so during a special time, like a picnic with friends or a play date or when a babysitter comes or for a long car ride, etc.

  12. This post really has me thinking….particularly because today we had Thomas’ friend, “Lydia” (age 6) over to play. Lydia’s mother is slightly overweight and always on some diet or another. One of the ways that she controls her own food intake is to strictly limit snack food in the house…fruits or vegetables only. The very moment that Lydia walks into the door of our house, she will start asking for snacks. And she does not quit. She easily spends 87% of the playdate whining for snacks, regardless of what other activities I may offer. For this reason, I only invite her over to our house if I am feeling saintly. I feel for the child, because I can almost guarantee that she will have some food issues as a teenager.

    Maybe I am lucky that my children are not snack-a-holics; maybe it has nothing to do with whether there is “just the right amount” of junk food available to them. I do think that other factors contribute to a child’s snack tendancies…. one thing I have tried to never ever do is to give my children food just because they are fussy. I know lots of moms who start chucking goldfish at their toddlers the moment a tear appears. I’ve always used other techniques to soothe my little ones (admittedly, one of those techniques has been nursing, but I feel like that is a different category from “food”). Also, I feel like there is often a correlation between the amount of tv a child watches and the amount of snacks he consumes….

    Regardless of what your child is snacking on, and how much of it, I still feel like the more important thing to instill is a love and regular habit of EXERCISE. Much like I don’t worry myself over the cheez-its I just ate because I know I will be roaming around the block a few times tomorrow, I also don’t worry much (or really at all) about my children’s caloric intake, because we spend big blocks of our daytime hours outside in the fresh air, frolicking about in one way or another. In a very Secret Gardinish way, children who get air and exercise have healthy appetites that, in my experience, guide them toward the nutritional items they need to grow effectively.

    Long and rambling, as I might expect of myself at 11:20pm when I should be sleeping.

  13. Catherine, thank you for the kind comments about your parents and their being slim! We are both battling the middle age spread/no time to exercise monster! I have enjoyed reading all these comments and agree with so many on different levels. I think the problem I have is mindless eating, like snacking while I read the paper and just not realizing how much I pack away. any yes, I crave chocolate so if I want to make brownies, I make sure to take most of them to a meeting where others can help me devour them!
    In today’s food section of the Post, there’s an article about how eating real food (as opposed to all the fake, chemical stuff in processed food) helps you lose weight. the food industry has it figured out to a science how much salt and sugar to put in foods to make you crave them more. So I think it is fine to buy a few packaged snacks but just read those labels carefully and be sure the first ingredient on the list isn’t sugar, corn syrup, or fructose because that would be the main ingredient. For instance, they compared real maple syrup and honey to the pancake syrups which are all corn and high fructose and usually don’t even have real maple flavoring. As I teach my 7th graders in ecology, Nature Knows Best!

  14. Interesting discussion! I agree that when you get nothing of something, you go overboard when you’re finally allowed to have it. This principle doesn’t just apply to snack foods. I had several girlfriends growing up who did this with makeup. They weren’t allowed to wear any until an insanely old age and then they went way overboard. I also know a kid who does this with video games. And of course there’s food!!! 🙂 Lately I’ve been trying to do the opposite because I’ve tended to hand out too many salty type snacks to Clara. I’ve been telling her lately, “This apple or this piece of plain bread is also a SNACK, and you need to accept that or you’re really not hungry!” So much of life is being balanced, don’t you think?

  15. Wow. This is really interesting stuff. 🙂 We have a 2yr old, so I don’t really have any advice EXCEPT this GREAT book that I’ve read, “Child Of Mine” by Ellyn Satter. The entire book is about feeding your children. One of the best books I’ve read. It’s a bit technical and not TERRIBLE gripping (HA!) but there’s a lot of really, really helpful info on eating and nutrition. 🙂

  16. Good stuff! I have an interest in food as well and have read several books you suggested. One tip I have in regards to snack portion control, which you might already be doing, is always putting snacks in bowls. My kids are not allowed to eat out of a bag/box/wrapper. They rarely ask for seconds and we both know how much they are eating. My husband is the hardest to break of this habit!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Notify me of followup comments via e-mail. You can also subscribe without commenting.

CommentLuv badge

A Spirited Mind HomeAboutReadingWritingParenting

Thank you for joining the conversation at A Spirited Mind! Please keep your comments kind and friendly, even if you're disagreeing with me or another commenter. Comments that use inappropriate language, or that are cruel, threatening, or violent will be deleted. I'm sure you understand!