Do kids need to snack?

That’s the question I raised in my last post.  I just finished reading Karen Le Billon’s book French Kids Eat Everything and I was responding to her point that French kids don’t snack as much as American kids do. According to Le Billon, French children (even very young ones) snack only once a day, sometime in the afternoon.

In contrast, American average nearly 3 snacks per day.  Some kids snack more frequently.

As a very recently reformed snacker, I’m conflicted on the pros and cons of eating between meals. 

I gave up snacking only a week or so ago (and today has already been a bust). Le Billon’s got me thinking.

No matter you think about snacking, though, the reality is this: Half (or more) of our kids’ daily eating opportunities, and more than ¼ of their daily calories, come from snacks. It matters what we teach them.

As Le Billon points out, and I agree, the jury is still out on the number of times people need to eat during the day.

There’s plenty of research that shows that eating frequently throughout the day reduces your chances of becoming overweight.  Unfortunately, there’s also plenty of research that counters this too.

And, there are perplexing problems associated with this research.  For instance, it’s not so clear that eating more frequently throughout the day provides a measure of protection against becoming overweight.

Many overweight people skip meals in order to reduce their calorie consumption.  Thus, some researchers speculate that it might not be that meal frequency predicts obesity, rather weight status might predict how often people eat.

Despite the persistent belief that snacking is a healthy habit, the evidence points in the opposite direction.

The more our kids snack, the worse they eat.

  • Today’s children typically take in 168 more calories from snacks than they did in 1977.  (Does that mean kids are hungrier—168 calories hungrier—at snack time than they used to be?)
  • Contrary to popular wisdom, kids don’t compensate for snacking by eating smaller meals.  Kids 2-6 years old have added 182 calories per day to their diet since 1977, with no corresponding increase in physical activity.
  • Most snack calories come from desserts and sweetened beverages, but salty snacks – i.e. potato chips, tortilla chips, pretzels — and candy are the fastest growing category of snack consumption.

Read The Snack Attack, Snacks: The Gifts That Keep on Giving and Snacking and The Nutrition Mentality.

The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t seem to have a policy on the number of snacks kids should consume during the day.

The AAP might have a policy, but I can’t find one.  (If anyone out there knows of one, please pass it on.)

However, I did find this recommendation:

“Limit snacking during sedentary behavior or in response to boredom and particularly restrict use of sweet/sweetened particularly restrict use of sweet/sweetened beverages as snacks (eg, juice, soda, sports drinks)”

Read the whole report Dietary Recommendations for Children and Adolescents: A Guide for Practitioners

Regardless of what you decide to do about snacks I think there are some things you should consider.

1) Kids should not snack on demand.  Instead, set a time for snacks and (basically) stick with it.

  • Your kids will appreciate their meals more (they’ll eat a better and more varied diet).
  • You’ll be teaching your kids self-control.  Read Marshmallows Make You Smart.
  • You’ll be able to plan what you serve for snacks because you won’t be caught off-guard, forced to buy whatever snacking delight happens to be available.

2) Make sure snacks “borrow” calories from meals, rather than increase the bottom line. This is easier said than done. Read The Snacking Minefield.

3) Double check that you really do dole out snacks in response to hunger and not because you want to distract, entertain, placate or keep your kids quiet.

4) Consider eliminating snacking on the go.  I’m not sure this is practical for Americans, but according to Le Billon, French kids only snack at home. This seems sane to me.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~



Le Billon, K., 2012. French Kids Eat Everything: How Our Family Moved to France, Cured Picky Eating, Banned Snacking, and Discovered 10 Simple Rules for Raising Happy, Healthy Eaters. New York: William Morrow.

Koletzko, B. and A. M. Toschke. 2010. “Meal Patterns and Frequencies: Do They Affect Body Weight in Children and Adolescents?” Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition 50: 100-05.

Newby, P. K. 2007. “Are Dietary Intakes and Eating Behaviors Related to Childhood Obesity? A Comprehensive Review of the Evidence.” Journal of Law, Medicine & Ethics 35 (1): 35-60.