It was a typical Saturday. My seven-year-old boy had a baseball game, where he got up to bat twice and fielded one hit to left field. As a reward for all that effort, he and the other kids got post-game snacks: a bag of Cheddar Goldfish (210 calories) and a little bottle of fruit punch Gatorade (80 calories). Because I dragged my five-year-old daughter to the game, she got snacks, too.
Then we were off to a birthday party. The kids had pizza (about 100 calories), even though the party was in the late afternoon, long after the lunch hour. They were also given chocolate cake (about 350 calories) and another glass of fruit punch (90 calories), not to mention a lollipop (26 calories) and a fistful of candy in their goodie bags.
None of this was out of the ordinary. This was a completely normal Saturday. If you’ve got kids, I bet it sounds familiar.
But count the calories. Because they went to a baseball game and a birthday party, my kids were each given snacks and treats totaling about 850 calories.
I’m not a nutritionist, I’m not an MD, but this isn’t right. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that my son should get about 1400 calories a day and my daughter about 1200. On Saturday, junk food accounted for 60% of my son’s recommended calories and 70% of my daughter’s. So much for a balanced diet.
The problem extends to the school week. On my son’s first day of kindergarten, he proudly reported that he had eaten five snacks that day. We counted, and he was right: one at morning care before school started, two during school (on top of lunch), one at after-school care, and a fifth as a “going home” snack. They included Froot Loops and graham crackers—not exactly smart choices.
Because it’s hot in the summer, my son’s baseball team has now asked parents to bring juice and snacks to practice. Never mind that practice ends right before dinner, that a seven-year-old’s baseball practice mostly involves standing around, and that water is every bit as hydrating as juice. Last Wednesday, my daughter got a popsicle after her gymnastics class. No one even thought to ask me if that was OK, even though her class ended, again, right before dinner.
This is all completely normal. The parents who bring snacks and the teachers who offer popsicles are just doing what everybody expects of them. I doubt most of them know how many calories their kids get from their everyday snacks. But if this is normal, what on earth are we teaching our kids about snacking habits? That sugar and empty calories are the necessary accompaniment to any sporting activity—indeed, any activity at all? That fruit punch and pizza are perfectly acceptable everyday snacks?
I don’t think it’s an answer to say that, if I don’t want my kids to eat junk food, I should just forbid them from eating it. We do some of that: my son doesn’t have five snacks at school any more. The social pressure, though, is soft but intense. When I get frustrated that my kids are getting cookies and candy for no good reason, I try to tamp down those feelings. I don’t want other parents to think I’m some helicopter parent who hates birthday cake. (I’m not! Just ditch the pizza and candy!) I also don’t want my kids to feel like I’m singling them out among their friends.
What’s more, the parents I know are tired and distracted and can only pick so many fights with their kids. We know from scads of research that a big part of establishing a healthy diet is creating conditions under which it’s easy to make good choices. When it’s a constant battle to keep the junk food at bay, even the best parents will often throw their hands up.
And so the snack food just keeps on coming. To be fair, some parents and schools buck the trend. They bring fruit or water instead of cookies and juice. Or they insist, as my son’s school did this year, that only fruits and vegetables are acceptable as school-day snacks.
For now, though, the norm is still Gatorade and goldfish. If we really want kids to eat right and to develop good snacking habits, that norm has got to change.