Augustus Gloop is the first kid to find a Willy Wonka Golden Ticket. His mother, Mrs. Gloop, explains to the reporters that it’s no surprise that her son found the ticket since he eats chocolate bars all the time. Unfortunately, his time on the tour is short-lived as he accidentally falls into the chocolate river and sucked into a pipe to the Fudge Room.
Kids need fuel to keep up with their activity level and to help them grow. But despite consuming three daily meals and snacks, there may be other motives as to why some kids continuously seek food.
Snacks on Snacks on Snacks
Snacks are necessary for a child’s growth. Kids need about 40 different nutrients daily and can typically reach that quota with regular meals and snacks throughout the day. Because their tummy size is still fairly small, young children have a difficult time eating large quantities of food. So, eating smaller meals with snacks throughout the day is actually helpful and more feasible.
However, snacking can get out of hand, especially in Augustus’ case. Kids eat up to 10 times a day, gravitating towards calorie-rich and nutrient-poor foods. These items lack the essential vitamins (like calcium, vitamin D, fiber, and potassium), and instead provide high intakes of calories, carbs, and sodium. This high consumption of calories from snacks translates to kids eating less at mealtimes, where the majority of nutritional foods are served.
Between the ages of 2-5 years, 2018 study found that snacks contributed to:
- 28% of the total daily calories consumed
- 39% of added sugar in their diet
- 26% of total fat and fiber
Additionally, cookies, pastries, and sugary drinks are the main contributors to calories, sugar, and fat in young kids. Unfortunately, these foods do not satisfy that feeling of fullness like fruits/vegetables do, and your child may still be hungry and will continue to eat until they are satiated. Remember, Not Real Food = Not Real Filling.
Let’s back up and talk about the oral sensory system for a moment. Oral sensory processing relies on three systems:
- Tactile (touch) – anything that contacts the lips, tongue, and cheeks
- Proprioception (body awareness) – chewing or sucking movements
- Gustatory (taste) – detects flavors
Together, they contribute to how we eat, drink, and produce speech. In addition, oral sensory input is a quick way to help organize a dysregulated system and reduce stress. For example, chewing gum can help de-stress a person in less than 10 minutes.
Why is this important? Because food is oral sensory input and if a child finds that certain foods (or traits like flavors or texture) give some sort of comfort and stability, they will want to reach for those items again and again.
Eating causes the release of dopamine not once, but twice: the first time occurs while you are eating and the second happens when the food enters your stomach. Another study also concluded that our body’s reward system (which includes dopamine) can override its interoceptive signals of feeling full. So, we will continue to eat something because it makes us feel good, even when we are already full. This can also drive emotional eating behaviors.
Eating is an absolute necessity to function, but we want our kids to be mindful about their eating habits and opt for the healthy calories and nutrients that count towards their growth and development. Here’s some ways to help them out:
- Keep snacks small, but enough to hold off hunger between meals. Typically, snacks should be offered 2-3x a day for toddlers/preschoolers between meals and 1-2x a day for school-aged kids and up.
- Provide foods that are filling, like whole grains, proteins, fruits, and veggies, either at mealtime or as snacks. Pretzels, Goldfish crackers, and the like are fine once in a while, but majority of snacks should contain filling nutrients. Keep the healthy snacks easily accessible and visible, and the not-so-good snacks out of reach.
- Divvy up your snacks into individual serving sizes. Instead of giving your kid a whole bag of something, portion snacks out into smaller, reusable containers so they don’t go into mindless snacking.
- If your child is seeking food after a snack, offer them water instead. Little kids are still figuring out the difference between their internal sensations of thirst and hunger. Also, give them a cup or water bottle that can be refilled throughout the day.
- Help your child understand the concept of hunger. One method I’m a fan of is “How Hungry Am I?” It discusses the concept of hunger and helps kids think about how their bodies notify them when it needs food. For more info, visit: How Hungry Am I? | Health Powered Kids
- Have meal and snack times on a predictable schedule. This can prevent your kid from eating for non-food reasons, like when they’re bored.
- Talk to your kid about their day. If they’re stressed, anxious, or sad, they may unknowingly try to soothe themselves with food. Be present, help them sort through their emotions, and figure out their next steps.
Shriver, L. H., Marriage, B. J., Bloch, T. D., Spees, C. K., Ramsay, S. A., Watowicz, R. P., & Taylor, C. A. (2018). Contribution of snacks to dietary intakes of young children in the United States. Maternal & child nutrition, 14(1), e12454.
Piernas, C., & Popkin, B. M. (2010). Trends in snacking among U.S. children. Health affairs (Project Hope), 29(3), 398–404.
The Science of Snacking | The Nutrition Source | Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health
Why We Eat for Pleasure | Live Science
Food Brings Double Dose of Pleasure to Your Brain – WebMD
Ebert, C. (2018, April 18). Sensory Integration & Speech Delays. Retrieved from seminar.