America is in the clutches of an insidious disease, one that thrives on the good intentions of parents and leaves a trail of wet Goldfish in its wake. I’m talking, of course, about our obsession with snacks.
Half of American kids now snack not once or twice, but four times a day, according to a large-scale study published in 2010. On average, kids are consuming 600 calories a day from snacks, 168 more than they did in 1977 (you know, back when strollers didn’t have little food trays attached to them).
My 9-year-old sometimes has three snacks a day: one in the classroom, another at his after-school program and a third when he gets home. Not surprisingly, his lunch box often comes back with a limp sandwich and untouched apple. Many nights, he’s not hungry for dinner.
Parents have only ourselves to blame, though. We cave to our kids’ snack requests, even before meals. (Despite my anti-snack rhetoric, I’m guilty of this, too.) We walk around with trail mix and Sun Chips stuffed in our bags like we‘re mobile, no-fee vending machines. We schedule snack time into every group activity, drawing up elaborate rosters and dictating which foods meet our collective nutritional standards. If a snack falls short, we question the judgment of other parents: Don’t they know that processed carbs are bad?
The culture of Snackism is entrenched, and it brooks no dissent. One fall, my husband was coaching our son’s soccer team. Five minutes into the first practice, a mother I’d never met approached me. “What’s the snack situation?” she demanded, without so much as a hello. I took a moment to tamp down my feminist ire — the coach’s wife is still expected to organize the food? — then shrugged with exaggerated nonchalance. “I don’t know,” I responded. Her eyes narrowed.
One mother I know pushed back when the self-appointed “snack coordinator” at her daughter’s preschool tried to institute a second snack in addition to the pretzels and juice the kids were already served. Preschool ran from 9 to noon. My friend didn’t see why the children would need more than one snack to tide them over until lunch. Nor did she want to add yet another thing to her to-do list. So she opted out. The coordinator “did not take kindly to this,” she recalls.
Why have we become pushers of raisins, hawkers of applesauce? Our kids are not starving. If anything, they’re too well fed: the child obesity rate has doubled over the past 30 years. Our snack fetish is “teaching kids the habit of constantly eating even when they’re not hungry,” says Maryland pediatrician Daniel H. Feldman. “And eating when we’re not hungry is a huge problem in this country.” Parents in other, less snack-happy nations view this practice with bewilderment. Babies and toddlers need to eat every couple of hours, but older kids don’t. (Kids with diabetes and other medical conditions are an exception.)
We shouldn’t be doing this to our kids, and we shouldn’t be doing it to ourselves, either. Look at us: We lie awake at night worrying about our aging parents, what the boss will say if we stay home with a sick kid, how to replace the busted washing machine. And we have to sweat the snacks, too? (Of course, after reading this essay, you’ve got yet another anxiety to deal with.)
By “we,” I really mean mothers, who bear the brunt of both snack logistics and snack guilt. As Judith Shulevitz recently pointed out, although child-rearing is far more egalitarian than it used to be, mothers still get lumped with most or all of the “worry work”: minutiae like permission slips, new sneakers or swimming goggles and, yes, snacks. Rather than sloughing off the tasks that aren’t essential, though, we keep shouldering all of them without complaint. Or, like the mother at my friend’s preschool, we hold them up as some masochistic gold standard of parenting.
We can, and should, resist. And I’ll start: From now on, I’m denying my son’s evening snack requests, which seem to cause more drama in their fulfillment (“I don’t want string cheese!”) than in their denial. The answer for school and sports snacks is just as clear: Ditch the spreadsheets and sign-up forms. Parents should be free to pack a snack of their choice for their own child, if they want to.
If not, the kids will just have to — say it with me, parents of America! — wait until their next meal.