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« Road signs | Main | The food rules »

Snacks vs. treats

I feel like I have been standing in murky waters for most of my parenting life, up to my knees in confusion about how to define the relationship with food that I was going to have on behalf of my child.  The Food Rules have helped. But before they worked well, my family needed to unpack the idea of a snack a little more completely.  

Dina Rose, over at It’s Not About Nutrition, wrote this post recently about redefining snacking and her wisdom has influenced my thinking on the topic.  Dina makes a worthy distinction. We typically think of a snack as a type of food when really a snack is a time of day.  

A snack is just a time of day, not a type of food. Snack foods don’t have to come from the snack aisle of the grocery store.  A snack is a small meal eaten in between our larger meals and any type of food can be available for that small meal.

Remember those Gerber food puffs?  I think that is exactly where this whole debate about what foods I should be buying began.  It is the place where the snack food industry began to bully me with their convenience and portability and designed-just-for-kids mind tricks.  When I started thinking in a new way, following Dina's ideas about what makes a snack, the foods that have been worrying me because of their refined flour and sugar, high fructose corn syrup, sodium, and artificial ingredients began immediately intimidate me less.  They became treats, not snacks.  And the murky waters I felt like I had been standing in since WJ’s first bites of finger food began to clear up for me. 

This is a picture of the snack shelf in our cabinet.  It used to be full of boxes of cereal bars, pretzels, and crackers of all varieties.  It was like a delivery direct from The Little Engine That Could.  I am proud that this shelf is nearly empty.  In fact, I have been thinking about repurposing it altogether, maybe moving my spices into the newly cleared real estate. Snacks don't need their own special place.  They can be found all throughout our kitchen, in all the places you might find fresh, good food.

It certainly is not that we never have a bag of Goldfish in the house or that I am forbidding WJ from eating fruit snacks when his friends offer them in the park.  But those are treats.  Sometimes we have treats… sometimes we don’t.

A snack, on the other hand, can be any food.   Of course, I am not whipping up a little roasted chicken or rack of lamb for a snack. Our snacks mostly come now from the breakfast and lunch categories.  I am working to make sure we always have plenty of fruits, vegetables, and nuts, as well as whole grains and dairy options available for the mini-meals in our day.  My grocery shopping anxiety is cut at least in half. 

Here are some common choices from our repertoire of snacks:

  • Apple slices and a mozzarella cheese stick
  • A slice of whole wheat banana bread
  • A handful of almonds or cashews
  • Yogurt
  • A clementine or orange sections
  • Popcorn
  • Cubes of cheese
  • A handful of grapes and some nuts
  • Bread (sometimes with butter or apple butter, often plain)
  • A bowl of Kashi cereal with milk
  • A whole-grain pumpkin mini-muffin, or other homemade muffin
  • Ants on a log (celery sticks with peanut butter and raisins)
  • A mini-bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter and honey
  • Salami
  • Half of a peanut butter sandwhich
  • A soymilk smoothie with banana and berries
  • Carrot sticks

Most of these can be slipped into my bag if we will be away from home at a snack time.  They are convenient. But few of them are overly processed.  And all of them offer actual sustenance.  WJ does especially well if his meals and snacks offer some protein.  These snacks are also a big part of his getting in those five servings of fruits and veggies a day.

A snack is a time of day, not a type of food.  A treat is a treat.  These are two principles that have made The Food Rules more livable and enforceable and have helped me relax, knowing that WJ is eating well.

What are the favorite snacks in your house?

By the way, if you are not familiar with Dina Rose, check her out. Dina is a food sociologist and her blog, It's Not About Nutrition, is a site full of useful information.

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Reader Comments (11)

I really enjoyed reading this post and love the sentence, "A snack is a time of day, not a type of food." What a great mindset. I liked reading your snack list too. I offer my kids almost the same exact list for snacks. They are also big corn muffin fans and I found a not-so-sweet corn muffin recipe. I get 18 corn muffins and the recipe calls for only 1/3 cup of sugar, so I thought that was good. My son LOVES cream cheese sandwiches on the whole grain Arnold Select sandwich thins, and my daughter often asks for peanut butter or jam on bread, but never on the same sandwich :)

February 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAnne Marie

I likewise love the "time of day" concept and that's how I approach it as well. Our snacks are very basic as well and I cringe when I'm around others whose kids are forever begging "dessert", but I suppose that's another issue. Muffins are a big winner here because they freeze so well. I also love that snacks allow me to get our fruit/veggie servings in so that other meals don't have to look entirely balanced for things to even out.

February 1, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterHeather

seriously though, if you ever decide to whip up a rack of lamb as a snack, i think it should be on a day i'm hanging with wj. seriously.

February 1, 2010 | Unregistered Commentersarah

You're on, Sarah. Next time...

February 1, 2010 | Registered CommenterEmily

What a great mindset to get into now, so that my wee one gets the concept of snack time from the outset. Thanks, Emily, for all the snack suggestions! Now if only we could get goldfish crackers out of our church nursery . . . ! Ah well, so church is a treat.

February 3, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMeg

I'm eager to follow this line of posts about better snack food . . . Like others have said, I love re-envisioning snacks as a time of day rather than a type of food. I'm trying to break my kids of the Annie's bunnies habit . . . better than their equivalent of goldfish or teddy grahams, but still something that should be eaten as a treat rather than a daily snack. I have had some success with garden veggie muffins (they incorporate carrots, zucchini, apples, and walnuts) . . . I think you've inspired me to make them tomorrow! At least the kids'll be getting their veggies at snack time!

February 6, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAbby

My kids love dried fruits, like apricots and prunes. One likes any kind of nuts or seeds, cashews being a favorite. Plain rice cakes, or the ones that have soy sauce and tiny seeds on top. Applesauce (unsweetened), a handful of golden raisins. Shredded cheese is fun, but messy. Frozen peas, still frozen.

February 9, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterSue

These are all such great ideas. Thanks for helping me expand the repertoire over here at Chez WJ!

February 11, 2010 | Registered CommenterEmily

Interesting perspective. I think this is how I have been defining snacks in my mind but couldn't ever really define it. We tend to have a piece of cheese and some fruit at morning tea or even some toast if we are at home. Then afternoon tea is usually dried fruit and a savoury muffin or something along those lines. I do find snacks the most difficult though because they aren't a defined meal but rather something to keep the metabolism firing until thenext meal. I like your list of snacks and may have to borrow it!

February 24, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterAndj

I wholeheartedly agree! I was in my kid's 2nd grade classroom during lunch one day and was astounded by the number of lunches the parents packed that had nothing but convenience "snack foods" inside and no fruit or vegetable in sight!

March 31, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterDeanna {Marzipan}

So well said, as always. I really struggle with snacks for the twinkies, because they're both in classrooms that have severe allergies, so there are no nuts allowed at all. My kids love nuts! They've never liked dried fruit, so I send a lot of cheese, fruit and crackers....I never thought of simply sending bread, as I've definitely been looking at snacks as 'treats' and not just a smaller portion of the food we normally eat.


December 17, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterVicki

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