There’s an interesting discussion about snacking going on over at Baby Led Weaning.

It was spurred on by a reader’s reaction to my post Do Kids Need to Snack?.  I’m sure you recall that post (having committed all of my writing to memory) but just in case you don’t, my main points were:

  1. The research jury is still out on the number of times people need to eat during the day, and not all countries promote frequent snacking like we do here in the U.S.
  2. Despite the persistent belief that snacking is a healthy habit, most American kids snack on trash.
  3. The American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t seem to have a policy on the number of snacks kids should consume during the day.

Then, I went on to give a list of recommendations for parents to consider should they decide to let their kids snack.  One of my recommendations was that kids should NOT snack on demand.   And this seems to be the thrust of the debate over at Baby Led Weaning.  Read what people are saying.

Should toddlers snack on demand?

Let me be clear about one thing: I do believe that infants should eat on demand. Toddlers, however, are another story. Toddlers need to transition from eating on demand to eating more on a schedule. Here’s why:

1. In the ideal world, people would only eat when they were hungry.  And, if those hungry times didn’t coincide with times when other people were hungry it wouldn’t be a problem.

Unfortunately, in today’s world, even young children are subjected to the constraints of conventional mealtimes.  Just ask any parent who sends her child to daycare: There’s snack time and there’s lunch time.  If your child misses the boat….  It only gets worse when kids get older.  (Think about those excruciatingly short school lunches some kids are subjected to.)

2. When children know they can eat whenever they want, they have no incentive to eat at mealtimes.  Most parents I know want their children to eat (and to eat well) at meals for a variety of reasons, including the fact that meals are typically when kids are exposed to new foods.

3. Many parents who let their children eat on demand have difficulty setting limits on snacking before mealtimes because they feed their children whenever they are hungry.

If you don’t allow snacking before meals then you are setting the kind of limits I recommend, and our thoughts on snacking are probably not that far apart.

4. When children are completely left to their own devices to choose what they eat, they often end up eating the same foods over and over.  For many toddlers the result is an increasingly narrow diet and an aversion to new foods.  (Although many parents who support grazing rotate the kinds of foods they provide, most of the parents I know who allow snacking on demand also let their children decide what they eat.)

5. Snacking on demand teaches children that even mild hunger is to be avoided.  This is the wrong (life) lesson for kids to learn.

I let my daughter snack on demand.

You might be surprised to learn this.  Not only did I let my daughter snack on demand when she was a toddler, I continue to let her snack on demand even now, and she’s 11.

So maybe I need to clear up what I mean by snacking on demand.  As a toddler, I let my daughter choose when she ate her snack. I never let her choose how many snacks she ate.  In other words, no grazing.

In this way, I created a structure that enabled my daughter to keep control over her own hunger/satiation while, at the same time, I did not undermine what I was trying to do at meals.

Now, though, I wonder if even that amount of snacking was or is necessary.  I don’t know.  What I do know is…

When children ask for a steady stream of snacks throughout the day they are not eating enough when they do sit down to eat.

There are many reasons, other than excessive snacking, why a toddler might not eat well at meals.  The primary reason? The typical toddler ants-in-the-pants, something-better-going-on-over-there syndrome.

But, the solution to an antsy kid isn’t to increase snacking frequency.  Rather, the answer is to increase how much your child eats when it’s time to eat. (This you do through a combination of antsy eating-on-the-go and by distinguishing between eating and non-eating times so your child comes to the table primed to eat.)

There is no evidence that constant eating—i.e. snacking completely on demand—is healthy.  The research that supports eating multiple meals and snacks throughout the day is always referring to discrete, confined, episodes of eating.  (If I’m wrong, please point me to this research.)

Of course, I assume that the parents over at Baby Led Weaning know this and don’t really support letting their children eat totally on demand.  However, in my experience, there is a fine line between grazing and eating on demand.

When parents have trouble getting children to eat when, what (or even how much) they want, the first correction typically involves snacking.

Indeed, I don’t think it’s too much to say that getting snacking right is the key to teaching kids to eat right because snacking is central to the entire eating system.

~Changing the conversation from nutrition to habits.~