Fed Up With Mandatory 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 Chinese class, 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 Our 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 hummos and pita chips with fresh carrot juice, the next day a parent may bring frosted cupcakes and chocolate milk. 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  Triggering Behavior Problems


Some children (including mine) have health and behavior problems triggered by ingredients in common foods.  Studies show that even children who are not diagnosed with ADHD or other behavioral disorders react to drinks containing artificial color and sodium benzoate. Not just a mild reaction. They typically increase their activity levels by one-half to two-thirds, in league with their ADHD peers. And plenty of children (including mine) suffer from various food intolerances that can cause discomfort and acting out as well as more serious reactions. The pressure of classroom reward snacks offered by the teacher, as well as snacks at school parties and after school events were contributing factors in my family’s decision to homeschool.


Peril #6  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?


About Laura Grace Weldon

Laura Grace Weldon is a writer, editor, conflict resolution educator, and marginally useful farm wench. She is the author of Free Range Learning: How Homeschooling Changes Everything. She lives with her family on Bit of Earth Farm. Check out life on the farm at http://bitofearthfarm.wordpress.com/ and keep up with Laura’s relentless optimism at http://lauragraceweldon.com/blog-2/


4 thoughts on “Fed Up With Mandatory Snacking”

  1. Well said. I’ll join you in the ranks of anti-snack. I wonder if “we” are using the snack, particularly the individual packaged variety, to distract kids and ourselves from the unpleasantness of other things. Like, will my kid want to go to baseball if he knows there’s a juice box at the end of the game? Even if we don’t point it out in words, our actions repeatedly communicate a value.

  2. My favorite thing about my sons’ preschool is that snacks have to be fruits and/or vegetable (preferably fresh) with no other ingredients (minus whatever allergies kids in the class have). The only packaged food allowed is dried fruit (no other ingredients), baby carrots, and seaweed. This has taught my boys to eat many healthy things because even if they didn’t care for the flavor the first time, seeing their friends eating them and having it offered to them multiple times over the year, really helps them become comfortable with new, fresh foods. It is possible for the peer pressure to have some positive benefits when teachers and parents have the same goals and rules to follow.

    During other activities, we haven’t experienced the snacking excess, and since we don’t eat processed foods, we nearly always have our own snacks on hand. I can’t expect other families to make adjustments for our allergies and eating habits, and I wouldn’t put the responsibility for my kids’ health in the hands of parents who consider processed food either a ‘treat’ or ‘normal snacks’.

  3. I think you’re really hit on something Rachel. And if we have to motivate our kids with snacks, chances are the activity isn’t as valuable as letting them have time to play, imagine, and daydream.

  4. Experiencing preschool envy. In our part of the midwest, parents consider “natural” on the label of gummy fruit to be obsessively healthy.

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