Now that kids are learning at home, it seems like anytime is the right time for a snack. (Count how many times your child asks for one, and you’ll see what we mean.) And no matter how often you give them one — and think they’re finally full — 20-ish minutes later they’re back whining that they’re star-ving again. Sigh. But can kids just graze on food all day? Is there any real harm in just serving up a steady supply of snacks?
As you might have guessed, all-day grazing isn’t a good thing — for anyone. “Kids are growing creatures; they are getting taller, their brains are developing, and their bones are getting stronger, and they have more energy than adults,” Dr. Charnetta Colton-Poole, M.D., FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician, tells Romper. “So it makes sense that kids have different caloric needs than adults. However, this does not mean that kids need to eat or graze all day!”
So why isn’t it a good idea for your child to snack all the time instead of eating meals? “The constant stream of energy can keep glucose elevated and disrupt hormone communication,” Caitlin Self, MS, CNS, LDN, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist, tells Romper. “The digestive tract needs a break so it can complete its ‘cleaning cycle,' which works in 90-minute waves and won't function if there's food in the digestive system.” And eating all the time can prevent your child from noticing when they’re actually hungry, which can lead to overeating.
That’s why it’s important to identify why your child needs to nosh all the time. “Oftentimes stress (due to family situations or illness, for example), can lead to emotional eating,” says Dr. Colton-Poole. “If this is the case, you should talk to child and help them work through their emotions.”
But more often than not, kids get a snack attack because they’re bored, which can lead to mindless munching. One way to get around it: schedule meal and snack times and offer healthy options. “We tend to snack on less nutrient dense foods when left to our own devices,” says Self. “If kids are allowed to graze all day on whatever is available, they're likely to reach for chips and cookies rather than fruit, veggies, and protein.”
Now, there might be times when your kiddo is just naturally hungrier, and that’s to be expected. “During growth spurts and rigorous activity or sports, kids may have an increased caloric need,” says Dr. Colton-Poole. “Generally, though, kids should eat three balanced meals a day with 2-3 healthy snacks.”
But all of that applies to normal day-to-day life. But these are tough times that we’re living in. So if your kiddo wants the occasional extra snack, there’s probably no real harm in giving it to him. “If you have to rely on food to help create calm or normalcy, that's okay sometimes,” says Self. “You just don't want it to be the main coping strategy.” So have a cookie or two with your kiddo. You both deserve it.
Dr. Charnetta Colton-Poole, M.D., FAAP, a board-certified pediatrician
Caitlin Self, MS, CNS, LDN, a licensed dietitian and nutritionist