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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Laura is the author of a poetry collection titled Tending and Free Range Learning, a handbook of natural learning. She lives on a small farm notable only for its lovestruck goose.