Published on 23rd September 2017


Do you panic if your bag is not fully-loaded with snacks on stand-by to silence your child’s rumbling tummy? If so, read on. Jenna Sinclair writes

After years of limited options, the snack world is changing. Slowly, the packets of crisps, confectionery, and sweets that dominated the last decade through shameless eye-level marketing at children are being replaced by vegetable crisps, unsalted nuts, dried fruits, and other products boasting ‘no added sugar’ and ‘no artificial colours or preservatives’. We have turned a monumental corner and it seems all-good. Some larger supermarkets now even place free fruit near their entrances for children to munch — hopefully avoiding a hunger-fuelled tantrum around the cake aisle.

So, does this mean that children are always hungry? Perhaps not: just that supermarkets are aware of how placating snacks can be on children’s moods and, consequently, behaviour. We’re all aware of the fearful state of being tired and hungry, especially when we are doing the after-work food shop and familiar scenes unfold; we’re hungry after work, they’re hungry after school, and chaos ensues.

In the western world, however, most of us are fortunate enough to not know real hunger. We probably know mild discomfort having not eaten for a few hours — whilst knowing that food is within a 30-minute radius thanks to the rise of a convenience culture and a got-to-have-it-now mentality.

Empty energy

Snack culture has grown significantly since the 1970s. Research has shown that between 1977 and 1996, the number of calories that children consume from snacks has increased by 120 calories per day.1 According to a 2010 study from the University of North Carolina, 98 per cent of children in the US snack at least once a day; an increase from 74 per cent in 1978. More concerning, though, is that they now consume almost 600 calories from snacks per day. While calorie needs will vary, depending upon the child, their age and activity, for some children that figure translates to around a quarter of their recommended daily intake — which might explain some of those unfinished dinners and lunches.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that many sugary snacks contain what are often described as ‘empty’ calories, i.e. that the calories consumed are not accompanied by beneficial nutrients.

So, if kids are filling up on in-between nibbles, is the children’s snack market really necessary, or just something that has been created by clever marketing aimed at cautious (and weary) parents? And how do parents decide what is best, in a culture where they may be scared to leave their child hungry for even a little while? Aside from having their competency challenged, many parents often don’t want to be unpopular with their children — and refusing snacks could be seen as being mean at the very least, and neglectful at worse.

The World Health Organisation has little to say on children’s snacking. However, it does maintain that children should lean towards unsaturated fats and generally increase their consumption of fruits and whole grains.2 And the Centre for Science in the Public Interest is all for children having snacks, providing they are mostly fruit and vegetables, stating: “Serving healthy snacks to children is important to providing good nutrition, supporting lifelong healthy eating habits, and helping to prevent costly and potentially-disabling diseases, such as heart disease, cancer, diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity”.3

Give it a rest?

Ironically, however, whilst snack culture for children has increased, many adults have gone the opposite way, following intermittent fasting instead — something that has been practised in some cultures for generations. Just as our ancestors — some not that many decades ago, either — would not have access to food all the time, fasting is based on the concept of feast and famine, and how we are biologically programmed to survive periods of little or no food.

“If a child doesn’t eat well at one meal, the next meal isn’t that far away! So, there is no need to fill your child up with snacks...”

Healthier snack attacks!

Fresh fruit served with a small palmful of nuts 
Homemade smoothie with yoghurt and crushed seeds
Raisins and a small palmful of nuts
Avocado chunks
Savoury wholemeal or buckwheat muffin (e.g. apple & cheese, feta, seeds, etc.)
Chicken nibbles (preferably from home-cooked, fresh chicken) 
Mashed hard-boiled egg on cracker/toast with cress
Cucumber, peppers, carrots with hummus or yoghurt dip
Spiced nuts
Unroasted/unsalted nuts and seeds
Coconut pieces
Sliced apple with nut butter
Celery sticks stuffed with cream cheese or nut butter
Small pot of natural yoghurt with a dollop of home-cooked stewed fruit
Slices of tofu
Slice of frittata (omelette)
Chunks of very good quality sausage
Small bowl of no-added sugar muesli
Homemade nut biscuits or seed flapjacks
Mug of soup which contains protein (e.g. chicken, lentil, ham)
Wholegrain bread sticks with dip
Homemade popcorn with cinnamon
Oatcakes/Ryvita/wholemeal toast with: cheese (cottage/cream/Cheddar); red/green pesto; hummus; smoked mackerel/salmon pâté; mashed sardines; reduced-sugar baked beans; peanut butter (no added salt/sugar); nut butters (almond/cashew); mixed seed butters; or bean dip

Caution: Always check with the parent or guardian for any potential allergies before offering snacks. Be aware of the risk of choking in young children.

(Reproduced with kind permission from Kate Delmar-Morgan)

“Better quality meals will provide them with longer lasting energy and more nutrients,” she says. “At any age, children need a balanced and nutritious diet, based on all the food groups, due to their growth, development and activity needs. So it is best to concentrate on good nutrient content of main meals rather than lots of snacks to supplement these meals.
“If a child doesn’t eat well at one meal, the next meal isn’t that far away! So, there is no need to fill your child up with snacks and drinks in the interim to compensate as this may alter their appetite regulation system.”
If a snack is needed, Delmar-Morgan encourages parents to make swaps to healthier choices. “But I would ask them to consider whether it is absolutely necessary.”
And just as us adults are capable of reaching for the biscuit barrel without a thought, maybe in future we might also ask how much of ’I’m hungry’ actually just means ’I’m bored’.

Additional reporting by Maggie Charlesworth.

Jenna Sinclair is one of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Ambassadors who runs the food blog and is also a life coach based in Brighton.



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  1. Piernas C & Popkin B (2010). Trends In Snacking Among US Children, Health Affairs, 29(3), 398-404.