Snacking American Style: How it turns kids into a picky eaters

May 6, 2013 by

I may have just solved the picky eating problem for about 75 percent of the children who won’t eat their healthy dinners.

The problem is snacking.

Once, I saw one of my French nieces walk through the kitchen, grab something and stick it in her mouth. It surprised me, a lot. I knew immediately something was wrong with that picture. It took me a second to realize: I had literally never seen a French kid (or adult) walk through the kitchen and put something in her mouth like that.

French people don’t do that, you see. They eat only when it’s time to eat. They don’t eat just because they feel cravings, or are bored or stressed. They don’t eat just because they feel like celebrating, or relaxing, or socializing. They only eat if it’s time for breakfast, lunch, goûter (after-school snack, similar to British tea time), or dinner.

Socializing and celebrating and relaxing can tag along with a mealtime, but eating isn’t added to every occasion. In France, social, celebratory events are planned for times that eating is normal. They don’t go out at 11 p.m. and eat pizza for fun if they have already eaten dinner, for example. They don’t meet a friend out for muffins at 10 a.m. to socialize unless they somehow (gasp) missed breakfast. Also, they eat only at the table.

These are habits the French grow up with and accept as normal. Meals and mealtimes are sacred. Babies are guided as soon as possible into scheduled feedings and as soon as possible to a meal schedule. They don’t sit around all morning nibbling on packaged baby edibles while they play. Instead they play and get good and hungry for their mashed green beans at lunch. I never saw kids being picky eaters in France, not incidentally.

Snacks, Snacks Everywhere and Not a Bite to Eat

I picked up this perspective on snacking by living in France and being married to a French guy. So when my kids started playing soccer in Texas, I was highly annoyed with this tradition of SNACKS. At every game, some parent had to bring a snack. It didn’t matter what hour of the day the game was played, we had to make snacking part of it. We couldn’t wait to go home and eat our lunch, we had to have a snack right that minute, after every game.

It seemed to be viewed as part of showing our love to our kids and making the occasion “special.” How do we make an occasion special and a person feel special? Just add food, preferably junk food.

I hated bringing a snack myself, because I’m not good at thinking up good ways to do things I think are a bad idea. I don’t like spending money on things I think are worse than worthless. I also could see the other kids weren’t very thrilled with my watermelon wedges and water bottles. I tried not to take it personally.

I hated even more when other parents brought snacks, because they were generally rubbish: Gatorade and store-bought cookies, for example. I was one of those moms: I didn’t allow my kids to accept them. My kids were fine with that after the age of about six. They grew strong. We had good food at home.

It wasn’t only soccer snacks. People offered my kids junk food every where they went and at all hours of the day: church, school, other people’s houses.

The Wrong Thing . . .

I was reminded of those days yesterday.  An article in the San Antonio Express News, Richard Marini’s “Chew on This” column, was entitled “Some snacks deserve F’s.” He describes how some San Antonio parents object to the junk their kids are constantly being offered, especially at school. First graders might have a morning snack, where parents bring in the empty-calorie processed snack foods and junky sweets, which the schools distribute to all the kiddies. I was fit to be tied all over again just reading about it.

Marini’s main gripe with snacks is that they are junky, and our schools are supplying them to our kids.  I agree. Junky snacks equal fun times for most Americans, how to make kids happy. “Snacks” in American English means mainly manufactured, processed stuff that’s marketed to kids. But these foods are addictive and harmful. Eating them also makes real foods seem less appealing.

Some French people eat a lot of sugar for their snacks, too, along with quite a lot of desserts after meals, but they have one important advantage: at least they only snack once a day, if that.

I’m afraid people think they will rob their children of the joy of childhood if they don’t indulge them in plenty of junky snacks. Their lives will be dreary and they will suffer too much if they have to watch, empty mouthed, while the other kiddies are scarfing down the Oreos, Cheetos, Fruit Gushers and Skittles of their dreams.

But kids don’t need junk food. We are killing them with “snacks.” It’s not hard to figure out why so many kids are becoming obese. It’s not hard to figure out why we’re so far ahead of the French on obesity, either.

. . . at the Wrong Time

American  snacking is not only generally devoid of nutrition, taking up valuable stomach space that needs to be filled with nutrient dense food, but also, it’s willynilly. Any old time, any occasion, is snack time for us. If we go to a movie, if we go to the store, if are riding in the car, if we want to take a break or have a chat, if we are bored, we snack. Any occasion can be improved by an edible indulgence. This randomness is perhaps the bigger difference with French snacking.

How can a child be hungry for real meals if he’s been filling up on snacks all day?

Most of our snacks deserve an F, even if they were actually nutritious, because we’re eating when it’s NOT time to eat.

How Will They Eat, If They’re Not Hungry?
Nobody needs to snack at all really. That we need all this snacking is a big fat, cultural bad idea. Nobody needs munchies while they watch a movie, or play outside, or sit in Sunday School halfway between breakfast and lunch. We don’t need munchies to have fun and be happy.  Even little kids need no more than three meals plus one healthy snack a day, unless they are young toddlers. They will survive without any junky snacks at all, ever.
Kids don’t need a morning snack if they’ve eaten a good breakfast. They shouldn’t have a morning snack if we want them to eat a good lunch.
If you want your picky eater to dive into a healthy dinner, try eliminating the snacks. Hunger is the enemy of picky eating. The solution might be as simple as that.
If we eliminate random snacking on the junk foods that destroy a child’s natural appetite for healthy food, how many picky eaters would we have left? Much fewer, is my guess.