My livelihood centers on healthy eating. Still, I let my kids eat marshmallows, and I’d like to tell you why. Lately, there have been a lot of thoughtful articles published about kids and snacking. If you’re a parent, you know snacking is a part of your kids’ daily menu. Before I go to far, I’m a pro-snack parent, barring most snacks that consist of junk. It’s easy to get caught up in the junk food trap, even as adults. That said, not all snacks are junk. In fact, they can be a really valuable part of your kids’ nutrition.
I don’t think I’d find much of a challenge by saying that sugar the anti-Christ of our diets. Sure, you can say, “but a little bit of sugar isn’t that bad.” Unfortunately, we’ve lost our bearings when it comes to knowing just how much “a little bit of sugar” really is. Today the average American eats a whopping 152 pounds of sugar each year. Most “snacky” products, or foods not really a part of any meal, are major source of sugar. So, is the popular definition of a snacks a problem for kids? You bet! It’s only getting worse and kids will feel the impact in devastating ways.
First, let me make the distinction between what I consider a snack and what I consider a treat, because they’re not the same.
A snack is something that we grab in between meals – both kids and adults. While adults don’t really need snacks, kids typically need something in between meals as their metabolism is different than us adults. It’s not reasonable to expect a kid to go five hours or more in between meals without eating something.
Ideally, snacks have a greater balance of nutrient value than anti-nutrients. With three kids in my house, snacks typically consist of:
- Apples + Nut Butter
- Celery + Nut Butter (my kids like the log with no ants in our house)
- Carrots, Cucumbers (or another veg) + Hummus or Guacamole
- Plain Yogurt + Berries or Honey + Cinnamon
- Air Popped Popcorn + Coconut Oil or Butter
- Homemade Granola Bars (recipe)
- Grapes + Cheese Sticks
- Homemade Trail Mix
- Hard Boiled Eggs
On the other end of the spectrum, there are treats. I consider treats a once-in-a-while thing. And this is where marshmallows (as well as cupcakes and ice cream) come in.
I’m cautiously strict about this. I use the word cautious, because I don’t want to freak my kids out about food and their body. We talk about sugar a lot, and why it’s not healthy. We talk about why we need to keep it to a minimum. They know they can have sugary treats once in a while, with emphasis on the word “treat.”
My kids are 6, 9 and 7 months. If you have school age children, you know just how often occasions for treats arise (birthday parties, kindergarten graduations, picnics, etc). Our kids are exposed to and have access to sugar all the time. My goal is to give my kids a good foundation for them to make smart decisions on their own. I also want to make sure they stay unaffected by the impact of sugar, especially as it concerns their health.
Like I said, my kids go to parties, picnics and other celebrations where they eat cupcakes, ice cream and other sweet food. But those occasions are not every day. I try to keep treats as a once-in-a-while treat just for the heck of it – maybe once a week or so – and never as a reward for a positive behavior. Bring on a small handful of marshmallows! Last summer, it was ice cream. We all enjoyed some really good ice cream on a few separate occasions. Personally, I’m partial to custard. Maybe that’s because I’m from Wisconsin, and we have a lot of it up there.
I think if we could get kids on track to distinguish between a snack and a treat, they would be a lot better off. The last thing I want to do is lay guilt on any parent who sees their kids’ faces light up when they eat something sweet. But it’s important to understand that our consumption of sugar is out of control (adults, too). Type 2 diabetes, a disease that once only affected adults, not affects children and an alarming rate. Getting a grip on the amount of sugary treats your kids eat could have a positive impact on their health.
“Stepping down” from sugar can be tough, but try to eliminate the following from everyday foods:
- Sugar, Juices & Energy Drinks (substitute sparkling water with a splash of real fruit juice instead).
- Candy, Cookies, Fruit-flavored Snacks & Pudding (substitute banana slices dipped in a little dark chocolate or frozen grapes instead).
- Crackers* & Chips (substitute homemade popcorn, cheese sticks or nuts instead).*Crackers may not contain a lot of added sugar, but they are a refined carbohydrate and covert to sugar very quickly in our bodies.
This list isn’t perfect, and neither is my advice, but it’s a start. If you have any tips you’d like to share with others, please leave a comment.
Traci D Mitchell is the author of The Belly Burn Plan: 6 Weeks to a Lean, Fit and Healthy Body. She is a nationally recognized fitness, nutrition and weight loss expert who has been featured on numerous news programs, publications and radio shows, including Dr. Oz, The Steve Harvey Show, and the Today show. A certified personal trainer and metabolic typing adviser, Traci has been changing the lives of others for 15 years. She holds a master’s degree in communication from Marquette University and a master’s degree in health and nutrition education from Hawthorn University. She lives in Chicago.