Snacks are not my strong suit. An odd statement, surely, from a dietitian who loves to eat. There’s a saying in RD circles that a dietitian can’t leave the house without putting at least two snacks in their bag – even if they’re only going to get the mail. I am usually no exception to this rule, and on the days that I don’t have a snack plan I’m less human and more sad, irrational mess standing at Tim Hortons, unable to decide which sugar laden treat I must consume immediately. Then the cycle repeats itself 45 minutes later once my insulin has caught up to the sugar rush… but I digress.
Eating the snacks is not the problem, it is coming up with what to put in them. One would think that since becoming parent I should be adept at doling out nourishments several times a day. But one would be wrong. What I do is food, day in and day out, personally and professionally; I am confident in combining foods and nutrients for good health and satiety, but still I feel vexed by snacks at times. As a result, I always feel sadly inadequate and at a loss when other similarly taxed parents look at me earnestly and ask for my professional opinion on what to feed the children at brunch, lupper, and bedtime.
Just like with suppers, there can be a lot of cultural baggage that accompanies our ideas of what makes a good snack. Uncertainty over whether or not to eat, what foods to eat, and how to present it turn a small portion of your daily calories into a substantial amount of your stress. Rest assured, I have some suggestions to help us all make snacking a little easier.
- Eat if you’re hungry, don’t if you’re not. Some people live for snacking, others happily live without it, and, thanks to the pervasive diet culture, many others unhappily avoid between-meal bites. There is nothing wrong with snacks during the day, but it is important to know yourself and your hunger. Snacks can help stave off ravenous hunger later on, helping maintain our emotional and physical wellbeing down the line. Snacks can also be a time killer or distraction that don’t provide the kind of boost or recharge one seeks. Kids, however, always need snacks through the day, even if they claim they don’t. What kids don’t need is a new snack every hour that replaces regular meals.
- Think of snacks as small meals. I tip my hat to Ellyn Satter – whose books are helping solve the food battles in our home – for this succinct way of looking at between meal food. Over the last decade, snacking has taken on a life of its own, becoming a meal subcategory with separate and often distinct food choices deemed acceptable. In Canada and the US we love to label foods as to in which meal they belong (why else would we have the category of breakfast food?), but adding additional snack labels does more to constrain our choices and increase confusion than it does to help us eat well. Instead, reframe: meals are to replenish, satisfy, provide energy and nutrients. Snacks, by extension, play the same role on a smaller scale. So snacks=small meals, meals= vegetables/fruits, whole grains/starchy vegetables, protein (meats, legumes, eggs, nuts, etc), +/- additional dairy if not already included. Snacks can even literally be meals – what better way to use up those too-small-for-lunch-tomorrow portions of leftovers? There was never a rule stating snacks must come in packages or be non-traditional meal items, they just need to be filling, nourishing, and something you like.
- Ignore the Pinterest-worthy snack game. Making a choo-choo train out of bell peppers and filling it with little veggie people is adorable and I’m sure kids would love it, but if that’s the bar for a decent snack, then most of us should just throw in the towel right now. I am all for visually appealing food, but a solid foundation of planning and nutrition are far more important in the long run. We’re not all food stylists, nor do we realistically have hours to spend dressing our fruit and oat-parfait just right. Keep it simple and repeatable in the amount of time you actually have (not best-case scenario everyone-gets-up-on-time-and-traffic-is-smooth time), and follow the suggestions from #2.
- If it is labelled as a “snack” food, it probably isn’t (at least not on its own). Again, see #2. A food company including the word snack in the product’s name is an attempt to convince the consumer that this is a product that will fill the caloric void between meals. The more they emphasize the “snack” nature of the food, the less likely it is something that is filling and nourishing. While tasty, there’s nothing about a Doritos snack pack that is going to keep me satisfied even until the end of the bag. Include these items occasionally if you like, but pair it with something a little more satisfying.
- The same rules apply to kids. No where is the term snack food more prevalent than the lunch-box-filler aisle at the supermarket. Based on the sheer volume of products marketed for kids, an unenlightened observer may come to believe that school aged children are incapable of consuming anything other than packaged foods. Even infants and toddlers have their own crackers, cookies, noodles, and fruit squishies. Bright packaging and the promise of no more food battles wins over demanding kids and their weary parents. But so few of these items are necessary; they serve mostly to add additional items to shopping carts and pantries and increase the bottom line of the food companies. There is no such thing as adult food and kid food; we create that distinction by believing the marketing that kids need an entirely separate diet than adults. Aside from a few developmentally specific and fortified items like infant formula or infant cereal, kids are perfectly able to eat any food – so long as we let them. This is a tricky one for parents managing busy lives, peer pressure, and marketing to kids; truth be told it will be hard at first. Remember we’re playing the long game here, for some, the long-long game. Nourishing snacking habits take time and adult consistency to develop. This means giving them the same types of snacks we would give ourselves, with some of those fun snack foods thrown in here and there to shake up the routine.
Enjoy your small meals, invest in some snack-size food containers, and happy snacking.