Without a doubt, the questions I have gotten most from clients since everyone has been staying home are about snacking. When you’re home, with the kitchen in plain view and very little to distract from the draw of the pantry, it’s hard to keep your brain from wandering to the world of snacks.
Snacks don’t have to be the enemy, but they can be if you let them. Building snacks into your day can be really important, particularly for kids. The constant snacking (and pestering for snacks) is problematic; it’s what we call ‘grazing’. Grazing is extra tricky because it’s an easy trap to fall into, and it’s usually mindless unbalanced eating. So, how can you avoid the graze and take back the snack?
Here are a few tips I’ve found helpful with my own family and with my clients:
Make a Schedule
Schedules are kids’ best friends (even if they don’t know it). And in this new, nebulous world where you’re wearing a million different (and mostly brand new) hats, a schedule can be your savior. It gives the whole family’s day structure, and it sets boundaries. I often recommend this to clients, even not in a pandemic, because a schedule can also act like a contract among your family. Think about how your child’s school runs; if your child went to her teacher and said she wanted a snack in the middle of reading, she’d be told to wait until snack time or, for older kids, until their next break. As you might in a classroom, write out a kitchen/meal schedule with start and finish times for each meal and snack (i.e., Breakfast 7:30-8:30) and post it somewhere near or in the kitchen. Ideally, your whole family can come up with this schedule together, so you get the buy-in from the kids. I recommend starting with the meal structure of Breakfast / Snack / Lunch / Snack / Dinner. When the kitchen is “open,” they may have a meal or snack, and when it’s closed, you can suggest they drink water, exercise, and switch activities if they’re feeling bored and unfocused.
Mini Meal: Balanced, Plated, Seated
One pitfall of snacking is that we immediately associate it with packaged “snack” foods. I try to shift that view of snacking, that snacking means eating something junky in a mindless way, to the idea of a more balanced “mini meal.” Don’t get me wrong, the packaged snack foods are fine sometimes and during a normal school year, those shelf-stable, on-the-go foods are important to getting kids fed in transit. But now that we’re all home for a while, we have the opportunity to plan out meals and snacks so we don’t need to rely on those grab and go snack foods. The three things I aim for in a “mini meal” are that it is balanced, plated, and eaten while seated. I like using the MyPlate tool with kids (and adults!) to make sure you’re building a balanced meal or snack. Ideally you want to get as many of the four main plate areas (Protein, Grain, Veggie, Fruit) as possible at every meal and every snack. The portions at snack will be much smaller and may still be different, “snackier” foods than what you’d have at a meal, but you’re better served having a balanced snack (think: a string cheese, a handful of triscuits, and an apple) than something junky. Not only will a “mini meal” deliver a variety of nutrients to keep you feeling full and focused longer, taking the time to prepare and plate a snack, even if you eat it while working, is a much more mindful way to approach snacking.
Out of Sight Out of Mind
This one can work wonders for some people and not at all for others, but if nothing else it makes snacks harder to reach. The idea behind this is that if you and your kids aren’t staring at snacky foods all day, you won’t have it at the top of your mind and be craving it all day. If you can put the snacky or junky foods (think: chips, cookies, even crackers and things like Pirate’s Booty, Goldfish or Cheddar Bunnies etc) away in a high cabinet with a door or in an opaque container, it will keep you from thinking about snacking.
So all of this is great, but sometimes the kids (and you!) want the real deal snack foods! If your kids are coming up to you 10,000x a day asking for a snack and they only whine louder when you offer carrots, I feel you. One strategy that can help with this is to have your kids help you build a “snack basket” in the morning. Find a small basket or bin (small being the operative word!) and work with your child to put in 2-3 small portions of snacky foods in there. When they come to you asking for a snack, you can direct them to their basket. If everything is gone in the basket, you can offer veggies and fruits.
Even though we’re all home more (aka all the time), it can feel like we have even LESS time to do things. If you’re struggling to come up with three meals and two snacks a day, you are NOT alone! The best tip I can give you is to PLAN AHEAD. Make a habit of sitting down (ideally as a family) to plan out your meals for the week. This will give you a heads up about when you need to take something out of the freezer to defrost and allow you to plan for using leftovers at lunches. I like to come up with a list each week of snack options you have in the house and put it up in the kitchen. Including balanced combo ideas (Ants on a Log, Apple & peanut butter, carrots and hummus, peppers and guacamole etc) helps your kids come up with a balanced snack without going to you.
The next step in planning ahead is to prep food for the week on Sunday. This can include anything from chopping veggies and fruits to make them easy to grab to cooking meal components ahead of time and storing to reheat and use in a dish that week. I find it helpful to precut fruits and veggies for snacking and sometimes I’ll pack up little baggies of cheese that I can grab easily if we don’t have string cheese or other preportioned cheese. Portions are important with snacks; the snack foods tend to be salty and easy to overeat. If you’re building a snack basket, consider using some of your planning ahead time to portion out some snack foods into small storage bags so they’re ready to grab and add to the basket.
Written by Sari Imberman