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How to Tame Your Snack Monster

I have written extensively about our children’s relationship to food, and about snacking in particular. But by August, I had to admit I had lost the plot on snacks with this child. In the Before Time, we had the structure of school, work and being able to leave the house to help us determine when to eat and to do other things. Now, all the lines are blurred. And with many kids back to remote learning, that’s unlikely to change.

“My 6-year-old has eaten so many Cheez-Its, I guess I’m sending the owner’s children to college,” Emily Gardner, 43, a mother of two in Nitro, W.Va., told me when I asked parents to share their stories of snacking on Instagram. “There’s no sitting at the table for lunch anymore,” added Camie Manning, 34, a mother of two in Alcoa, Tenn. “There are just kids running around with pizza rolls.”

So how do we get back on track with better eating habits, without a clear end to pandemic life in sight?

First, know that it’s normal for kids to be snacking more at home. (Yes, still.) They may be self-soothing with food, which is not, in and of itself, an unhealthy thing to do. My 7-year-old daughter likes to eat M&Ms while she watches a show or reads graphic novels for her afternoon “quiet time,” and I love the comfort and pleasure she gets from this routine. Children may also be “more in tune with their hunger at home, without all the distractions and short meal breaks in the typical school day,” said Elizabeth Davenport, a dietitian in Alexandria, Va., the co-author of the blog Sunnyside Up Nutrition, about feeding families.

You only need to intervene if your child’s snacking has turned into the kind of all-day grazing pattern that replaces regular meals at the table. “We want kids feeling some gentle hunger before eating because this helps them self-regulate,” said Megan McNamee, a dietitian in Scottsdale, Ariz., and co-founder of Feeding Littles, a company that offers online courses for feeding babies and toddlers. “With grazing, they have this baseline level of not really hungry but not really full all day long, and can lose their hunger to eat with the family and try new foods. Plus food just tastes better when you’re hungry.”

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