What’s the issue with snacking?

As a parent, I know how easy it is to rely on snack foods to appease children when they are hungry, tired or unruly, especially when out and about. Eating between meals is important when children are young and have small tummies. Although they can’t consume much at each meal, they have a high demand for calories. Also if children are very active, especially taking part in sports, snacking can be crucial to maintain energy levels.

However, common snack foods such as crisps, sweets, biscuits and cakes often contain high levels of fat, salt and/or sugar and are therefore high in ‘empty calories’ (i.e. high in calories but lacking in essential nutrients). If these calories exceed the child’s energy requirements, this can contribute to excess weight gain. Consuming sugary foods between meals also contributes to tooth decay. Filling up on too many snack foods containing empty calories between meals, means that children are likely to eat less at meal times when more nutritious foods, (such as sources of protein, vegetables and fruit) are on offer.

Here are a few stats to put the issue into perspective:

  • The number of overweight and obese children in the UK is currently at a record high. One in five starting primary school are at an unhealthy weight, and this increases to over one in three by the time they start secondary school.
  • One in three children aged five and almost half of children aged eight had decay in their milk teeth in a survey carried out in 2013. Tooth decay is also the most common reason for hospital admission for children.
  • The average intake of added sugars (not including those from whole fruit and dairy products) is currently considerably higher than recommended for children of all ages.
  • Intake of salt and saturated fat exceeds the maximum daily recommendations for children of all ages.

Half of the sugar children eat comes from snacks and sugary drinks. In response to this, Change4Life launched a healthy snacking campaign in January 2018 to help parents navigate packaged snacks. The campaign encourages a limit of two packaged 100 calorie snacks per day and promotes fruit and vegetables at snack time. Spoon Guru have been contributing to this effort by working with Tesco to electronically tag products that meet the Change4Life campaign criteria. This has allowed Tesco’s online customers to choose healthy snack options by using the January Healthy Snacking filter, which as the name suggests, was only available throughout the month of January.

There is a real opportunity here to celebrate fruit and vegetables at snack times.

Less than one in 10 teenagers consume the recommended five portions of fruit and vegetables per day, with average consumption at under three portions per day. There are many fruit and vegetables that are easy to eat on the go. Bananas, apples, pears, and grapes, as well as sticks of carrot, celery, pepper and cucumber, are perfect snack options, and all contribute to your child’s 5 A Day. If you forget to pack the fruit, or don’t have time to prepare vegetable sticks before you leave the house, then look out for fruit and veg on sale when out and about. Snack pots are becoming increasingly popular in fast food outlets.

There are lots of other nutritious snacks out there, in addition to fruit and veg, that can keep your little one’s going until their next meal. These include bakery options such as a slice of wholemeal toast, malt loaf, crumpet, or mini hot cross bun. Dairy items such as no added sugar yogurts or mini cheeses can also make great snacks. Whatever you choose, if it comes in a packet, check the label to ensure it’s not high in sugar, saturated fat or salt. Remember that dried fruit should only be consumed at meal times, due to the impact their sugars can have on your teeth.

For the overall principles of a balanced diet, follow the NHS Eatwell Guide and you can’t go wrong.

It is important to remember that children under two years have different dietary needs to older children and may require more substantial snacks and/or smaller, more frequent meals due to their tiny tummies. Those aged between two to five years should be moving on to more grown up eating patterns of three staple meals and no more than two healthy snacks a day.

For me, I know the key to a happy, healthy snack time is preparation. I have had too many occasions when I’m caught short with two hungry, pestering children, rummaging through my bag looking for something to nibble on. I now always take with me a couple of bananas, apples and a tub with a hot cross bun, cut into quarters, whenever we go out!

About the author

Dr Rachel Allen has a Bachelor’s degree in Biological Sciences from Bristol University, a Master’s degree in Nutrition from King’s College London, and a Doctorate of Public Health from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (LSHTM). She is a Registered Public Health Nutritionist with the Association for Nutrition (AfN).

She has worked for over 11 years as a Government Nutrition Scientist for the Food Standards Agency (FSA), the Department of Health (DH), Public Health England (PHE), and a leading food service provider, Brakes. Dr Allen has now set up her own consultancy, Rachel Allen Nutrition and is a member of Spoon Guru’s Nutrition Expert Panel.