Forget the war on salt -- in today's New York Times, it's war on snacking. In a piece about the logistical demands of providing an inter-meal bite, Jennifer Steinhauer complains that, as a parent in these modern times, she's expected to bring food to everything from play rehearsals to school events and soccer practice. "When it comes to American boys and girls," she writes, "snacks seem both mandatory and constant. Apparently, we have collectively decided as a culture that it is impossible for children to take part in any activity without simultaneously shoving something into their pie holes."
Americans are increasingly becoming a nation of grazers. According a large study conducted by the Agricultural Department with the Department of Health and Human Services, and cited by Steinhauer, "between 1977 and 2002, the percent of the American population eating three or more snacks a day increased to 42 percent from 11 percent" The possible causes? The end of the traditional family dinner hour, the packed schedule of today's children which leaves little room for sit-down meals, and fast food companies' savvy marketing (recent concepts include the marketing of 100-calorie junk-food packs aimed at snacking kids).
"Fast-food restaurants are in on the act, and over the last two years have begun to introduce their own mini-meals, like the McDonald’s Snack Wrap. According to the Agriculture Department, American children get 40 percent of their calories from food of poor nutritional quality."
But does it have to be that way? A weakness in Steinhauer's piece is that it largely conflates snacking and junk food. Food conglomerates are great at making children want things they shouldn't be -- and they have been for a long time -- but that doesn't mean we need to give it to them. The snack foods Steinhauer uses as examples in her piece include Oreos, pretzels, Clif bars and Fruit Roll-ups -- but why not carrots, apples or bananas? A 2008 piece from the Times recommended that you shouldn't "restrict food from children" in your house, and instead "buy healthful snacks and give children free access to the food cabinets."
Feeding kids snacks in between meals, as Steinheauer argues, can be habit forming, but those habits don't need to be unhealthy. A child's expectation of a snack after soccer practice isn't an evil if the child also expects that the snack will be fruit, and healthy adult eating habits can include two snacks a day. That said, the ability to find fresh healthy foods during a recessionary time when junk food is often the cheapest alternative isn't always simple -- nor is it easy when other parents are offering Dunkin' Donuts after playdates -- but it's worth remembering that it's not always the snack that's the enemy, it's the sugar and fat inside of it.