Fight unhealthy snacking while maintaining peace and harmony – science-based tips that work

Well-meaning parents’ try to curb unhealthy snacking by restricting them – it usually backfires 

Well-meaning parents’ try to curb unhealthy snacking by restricting them – it usually backfires 

Over-snacking may be one of the major drivers of the obesity epidemic.

Kids now snack, on average, three times a day, and while frequent snacking wouldn’t be a problem if the snacks were healthy and nutritious – carrots and apples for instance – the typical snack is energy-dense, and capitalizes on sugar, fat and salt.

Snacking opportunities are everywhere, and snacks are sold and promoted wherever kids go. So what should a parent do? Urge his child to eat just half the pack? Forbid these sweets and sugary drinks altogether?

Parents can try to influence kids’ eating directly, through restrictions and urging, or covertly, by designing their environment – keeping certain foods out of the house, and avoiding places that serve mainly unhealthy foods.

The first method sounds like a good idea, but studies have shown that parents who try to restrict food achieve the opposite results: The more they restrict a food the greater the child’s desire for it, and when that same food becomes freely available kids overeat it. Most studies find a link between parental restriction and kids’ overweight and over-snacking. These results, however, can be bidirectional: It might be that parents of kids who’re overweight and already indulge on junk food tend to urge and pressure their kids to stop, as a response to the situation.

To actually prove causality and to help disentangle the connection between parents’ feeding actions and kids habits it’s better to follow families over time.

Which is what a new study conducted in Australia and recently published in the journal Appetite does. The study included 252 moms and their 3-11 year-old kids from diverse socioeconomic backgrounds.

Parents first reported on their strategy for “Managing Kids’ Food”.

To assess parents’ restrictions and control on eating the questionnaire included questions like “I have to be sure that my child does not eat too many high-fat foods” and “If I did not guide or regulate my child’s eating s/he would eat too many junk foods.” Parents responded to these on a sliding scale.

To assess parents veiled methods of controlling snacking the questionnaire asked them to scale themselves on questions like: “How often do you avoid taking your child to places that sell unhealthy food”, and “How often do you avoid buying sweets, crisps [chips], biscuits and cakes and bringing them into the home.”

Kids intake of all snacks, healthy and unhealthy, was evaluated at two time points, separated by 3 years.

The study found that parents who used more restrictive methods had kids who increased their unhealthy snacks 3 years later.

Parents who used more covert methods – such as avoiding high-calorie, nutrition-poor snacks at home – managed to decrease their kids unhealthy snacking over time.

These results held true even after adjusting for parents’ and kids’ weight, parental education and socioeconomic status.

This study joins others in showing that over time, well-meaning parents’ attempts to curb unhealthy snacking by restricting them backfires and achieves the opposite results. On the other hand, if parents remove unhealthy foods and replace them with healthy foods, without comment of fuss, kids eat better after 3 years.

Moreover, this study showed that snack intake in the first point of data collection did not predict parents’ strategy – on the other hand, the strategy parents used predicted snacking after 3 years. In other words, parents in this study weren’t responding to kids bad habits by restricting snacks; kids’ snacking, however was shaped by parents restriction and pressure, and in a totally counterproductive way.

Tips for healthier snacking

Snacking has become a way of life, and many parents are scrambling for ways to get kids to eat better – and to do so without unpleasantness and friction.

Here are a few favorite nuggets of wisdom and helpful tips from nutrition advocates and health experts who deal with this problem constantly:

Avoid pressure, struggle, restriction, guilt and deprivation

Because you’ll never win a power-struggle with a kid! Especially not in the long run.

Exerting control can lead to a feeling of deprivation, and “deprivation often leads to rebound eating and sneaking foods,” says Karen Koenig, a psychotherapist specializing in the psychology of eating. “Sadly, parents often create the behavior they’re trying to prevent by being too rigid with food rules to begin with.”

“Don’t make snacking into a moral issue.” Karen adds.Calling foods “good/bad” makes children (and adults) transfer the morality of food choice onto themselves, causing them to feel, say, virtuous eating broccoli and naughty eating a donut. Language matters a great deal, so it’s important to explain to children that foods go from less to more nutritious and that they aren’t good or bad children because they choose one food or another.”

Let your kids choose

“Bring your kids to the grocery store, and focus on the fruit and vegetable aisle. By allowing them to participate in choosing food you will increase the likelihood that they will eat the food later,” suggests internist and pediatrician Dr. Olatokunbo Famakinwa.

Registered dietitian Courtney Meidenbauer also emphasized giving kids the autonomy to select their food: “When it comes to snack options for children, the key is to offer many choices, but ideally all those are healthy options. When options A, B and C are all considered "healthy" snacks, there's no poor choice.”

Set an example

Kids are keen observers, and what you do matters more than what you say.

“Kids often want what YOU have, so make your own choices good ones. It'll be in both of your best interests,” advises health coach and personal trainer Robyn Lanci of Well Rooted Kitchen.

Provide a safe haven

Just like the study mentioned above suggests, removing junky snacks is a useful method parents should utilize. 

Pediatrician Heather Finlay-Morreale says: “One thing parents can do is simply not buy processed food for snacks. Provide healthy snacks low in simple carbs and high in protein. Options include yoghurt, fruit, carrots with hummus dip, nut butter on whole grain crackers, and cheese sticks. Sugary drinks should simply be eliminated. Other options are water or milk. Ultra-pasturized milk boxes do not need refrigeration and are a great portable option.”

“If it doesn’t make it into your shopping cart, it won’t make it into your pantry and subsequently into your kiddo’s mouths,” advises Registered Dietician Trish Brimhall. But make sure you keep your guidelines moderate and balanced so your kids won’t raid their friends’ pantries. “It is important that you don’t go overboard with extreme nutrition such as limiting all favorite snack foods, forbidding chips or sweets,” Trish concludes.

Choose your battles

You really can’t win them all, and many situations are beyond reasonable parental control.

“We eat very healthy at home, so if the kids are at a birthday party or when we’re on vacation, we can be a little more lax at those times,” Says therapist Heidi McBain.

Health coach Rachel Gersten, likewise, doesn’t impose the house rules out of home: “I suggest parents try to let go of what their kid eats outside of the home. It's important to do as much as you can (like sending healthy lunches and snacks to school or activities), but also accept that they're kids and will eat the occasional sugary treat or maybe drink a soda when they're away from home. I think the lessons on nutrition and continuously emphasizing the importance of healthy eating is crucial to making sure they grow up knowing the importance of nutritious foods, even if they eat junk food as kids sometimes."

Although it may seem like too many outside forces are acting against our kids healthy eating choices, we parents still have tremendous influence over kids’ food habits, and good habits can protect our kids for life.

Dr. Ayala

When parents remove unhealthy foods and replace them with healthy foods, without comment of fuss, kids eat better.