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Is snacking a child's friend or foe?

Stephanie_Radnan's picture

Since the 90s, there have been a number of increasing trends when it comes to food, health and our children. However harmless they may seem, some of these trends have become major contributors to the augmented rates of obesity, disease risk and developmental challenges observed in Australian children.

Recently, FX Medicine published an article Are Well-Fed Children Undernourished? exploring the insufficiencies of modern diets leaving our children overfed, overweight and undernourished. In a world of edible abundance, our children are simply not getting enough of the right nutrients to support their healthy physical, mental and emotional development. But what exactly is it about the modern diet that has left our children so depleted?

We live in an age where we can eat and drink what we want, when we want, and as a result, one of the biggest manipulators of modern eating habits is the commercialisation and popularisation of snacking. In recent decades, snacking in Western populations has shifted for all age groups, involving doubling the consumption of energy-dense, low-nutrient ‘snack’ foods for some populations.[1]

The change in meal patterns is multifactorial and attributed to various elements such as increased incomes providing families a greater ability to buy more foods and beverages outside the home, fewer family meals being consumed at home, dual-working parents, urbanisation and the increase in food affordability and availability.[2] Beyond this, there is an inadequacy of rules around what comprises a suitable snack in comparison to what is considered the important components of main meals, meaning that as a whole we are making poorer food choices more frequently, and these habits are being adopted by our children.

Snacking, identified as food consumed outside of meal time, is estimated to contribute to 35% of total energy intake[3] for over 95% of Australian children (aged two to 16 years).[2] Simultaneously, the frequency of snacking has risen during the same time period. In 2011-12, 26.9% of children were snacking three times per day and 18.5% of children were snacking four or more times per day. This has risen from 18.3% and 7.1%, respectively, since 1995. Not surprisingly, obesity rates have increased during this time from 20.9% to 27.4%.[2]

Perhaps snacking would not be of such concern, if it weren’t for the implications this has on nutrient consumption. With a greater proportion of daily energy coming from snacking, there has been a concurrent decrease in energy consumption from main meals. This has major implications as main meals are traditionally nutrient-rich. Fewer main meals, means fewer nutrients.[2] A point of contention for many concerned adults.

According to the Australian National Nutrition Survey from 2011-12[2] the top ten most consumed snack foods included sweet biscuits, bread, cakes, muffins, scones and cake-like desserts, savoury biscuits, mixed dishes with cereal as the major ingredient, potato snacks and cereal-based or muesli bars. Fruits appeared only twice on the list with pome and tropical fruits ranking at #2 and #10, respectively. No protein or vegetable items were listed. It comes as no surprise, then, that in 2014-15, only 68.1% of children met the recommended guidelines for daily serves of fruit, 5.4% met the recommended serves of vegetables; even less than that (5.1%) met both recommendations.[4]

Snack time itself is not inherently evil, however; it is merely what we have turned it into as a society that has perpetuated these outcomes. Snacking does not necessarily have to mean increased obesity and morbidity. In fact, snacking can be a useful tool for helping teach kids about intuitive eating, and if executed correctly, can help to add nutrients to the diet, rather than deplete them, as well as wage the war on exhausting mealtime battles. 

While well-meaning parents may use techniques to limit their child’s consumption of unhealthy snacks, research has found that parental control over feeding activities inhibits a child’s ability to self-regulate their own eating, while simultaneously increasing their desirability and preference for restricted foods.[5] Losing this ability means eating based on situational and emotional triggers rather than eating based on physiological hunger and satiety cues, the latter of which is associated with better health outcomes and psychological wellbeing.[6]

Intuitive eating was conceived in the 90s as a non-diet approach to eating, in a bid to tackle the obesity epidemic.[7] The premise behind intuitive eating is that, when listened to, the body intrinsically determines the quantity and type of food to eat to support a healthy nutritional status and weight.[7] And, research has consistently demonstrated a positive association between intuitive eating, a lower body mass index (BMI) and better psychological health.[7] Interestingly, children are born with this internal mechanism to help them regulate their food requirement and consumption, and it is a skill that is unlearnt through restrictive feeding strategies and the observation of parental feeding patterns.[6]

Parent feeding strategies are the specific behaviours parents employ to manage what, when and how much their child eats.[5] Two main feeding strategies are recognised. Firstly, restrictive feeding strategies, which limit the amount and portion sizes of certain foods, using food as a reward and monitoring a child’s intake of certain food. Secondly, there are covert feeding strategies, where parents alter a child’s immediate environment to influence the consumption or avoidance of certain foods. For example, limiting the amount of unhealthy food in the house and preventing your child from entering places that sell unhealthy foods.[5] Interestingly, it has been repetitively demonstrated that restrictive feeding strategies increase unhealthy snack intake in children, whereas covert feeding strategies decrease unhealthy snack consumption.[5,8,9]

What does this mean for your child and snack time? By keeping healthier snacks in the house and without impeding your child’s capacity to intuitively determine their own hunger and appetite, they will make healthier food choices without your obvious influence. It means children are able to listen to their innate cues rather than determining their hunger by the hands on the clock and their satiety by the emptiness of their plates. And the benefits of this extend far beyond the benefits of improved nutrient intake, as these eating behaviours become the premise of their adolescent and adult relationships with food.[7]

For a particular population of children who are living with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder (ASD) and other neurodevelopmental disorders, there is an increased need for dietary and nutritional support as food intake affects brain development and function, cognitive processes, mood and performance. For families of children with ADHD or ASD, following a particular therapeutic dietary regime can be challenging enough due to sensory restrictions limiting food intake and comorbid eating struggles.[10] In this instance, snacks could be utilised to help take the pressure off meal times as an extra opportunity to help support nutritional therapy.

So, the final question is how? What can we do as parents to make the most of snack time for both our child’s health and our own mental peace?

It is easy to create tasty snacks for kids that also boost their nutritional intake with simple food swaps and undetectable fruit, vegetable or supplemental additions (see Table 1). Simply incorporating foods high in macronutrients such as protein, broad-spectrum micronutrients, probiotics and omega-3 fatty acids, such as smoothies made with a high-quality multivitamin supplement, can help to support many concerns of healthy growth including supporting healthy brain development. In particular, to support therapies for ADHD, ASD and neurodevelopmental disorders.[11]

Table 1. Simple food swaps to keep snacks tasty and nutritionally fulfilling

Swap this To this
Chocolate or vanilla milkshake A tasty chocolate or vanilla flavoured kids shake from high-quality protein with vitamins, minerals, omega-3s and probiotics
Ice cream Homemade frozen yoghurt sticks filled with fruit
Packet chips Air popped popcorn with a sprinkling of flavour, such as smoked paprika for a BBQ flavour
Muffins, cakes and cereal bars A piece of fruit and a handful of nuts
Savoury biscuits Zucchini slice or soft-boiled eggs with soldier fingers

Perhaps then, we need to reimage ‘snack foods’ to prevent snack time from becoming an occasion to overindulge in nutrient-poor foods.[12] If snacks were to nutritively compare to meal time offerings, the need to fight over who is eating what and how much may be a concern of years bygone. You could ensure that each meal of the day offers a broad variety of important micronutrients, and then reduce stress and tension around meal times, while providing your child the ability to develop intuitive eating skills. If parents learn to manage a child’s environment by providing primarily healthy foods, there is no longer need to make any direct comment or fuss around their child’s eating habits.[5]

Crucially, these healthy eating practices established in early life would be the habits our children could carry with them through adolescence and adulthood. These tools would promote healthy growth and development, prevent their future risk of chronic disease[4] and would become the skills they pass on to the benefit of future generations.


  1. Johansson I, Holgerson PL, Kressin NR, et al. Snacking habits and caries in young children. Caries Res 2010;44(5):421-430. [Full text]
  2. Fayet-Moore F, Peters V, McConnell A, et al. Weekday snacking prevalence, frequency, and energy contribution have increased while foods consumed during snacking have shifted among Australian children and adolescents: 1995, 2007 and 2011–12 National Nutrition Surveys. Nutr J 2017;16:65. [Full text]
  3. Schuz B, Papadakis T, Ferguson SG. Situation-specific social norms as mediators of social influence on snacking. Health Psychol 2018;37(2):153-159. [Abstract]
  4. Australian Bureau of Stastics (ABS). National health survey: first results, 2014-15. ABS, 2015. [Source]
  5. Boots SB, Tiggemann M, Corsini N. “That’s enough now!”: a prospective study of the effects of maternal control on children’s snack intake. Appetite 2018;162:1-7. [Abstract]
  6. Tylka TL. Development and psychometric evaluation of a measure of intuitive eating. J Couns Psych 2006;53(2):226-240. [Full text]
  7. Van Dyke N, Drinkwater EJ. Relationships between intuitive eating and health indicators: literature review. Public Health Nutr 2014;17(8):1757-1766. [Abstract]
  8. Blaine RE, Kachurak A, Davison KK, et al. Food parenting and child snacking: a systematic review. Int J Behav Nutr Phys Act 2017;14:146. [Full text]
  9. Boots SB, Tiggemann M, Corsini N. Maternal responses to difficult food request scenarios: relationships with feeding style and child unhealthy snack intake. J Health Psych 2016: 1359105316669584. [Abstract]
  10. Lambregts-Rommelse N, Hebebrand J. The role of nutrition in child and adolescent onset mental disorders. Euro Child Adol Psych 2017;26(9):1007-1010. [Full text]
  11. Taylor MR, Chuang C, Carrasco KD, et al. Dietary and micronutrient treatments for children with neurodevelopment disorders. Curr Dev Dis Rep 2018;5(4):243-252. [Abstract]
  12. Hess JM, Jonnalagadda SS, Slavin JL. What is a snack, why do we snack, and how can we choose better snacks? a review of the definitions of snacking, motivations to snack, contributions to dietary intake, and recommendations for improvement. Adv Nutr 2016;7(3):466-475. [Full text]


The information provided on FX Medicine is for educational and informational purposes only. The information provided on this site is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional advice or care. Please seek the advice of a qualified health care professional in the event something you have read here raises questions or concerns regarding your health.

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Stephanie_Radnan's picture
Stephanie Radnan

Stephanie is a qualified naturopath, journalist, personal trainer, and multitasker who has been lucky to live her passion throughout her career in the realm of health and fitness. Currently, Stephanie is working as a writer and editor for one of Australia's leading nutraceutical companies. Outside of her work in comms and journalism, she owns her own naturopathy, health and fitness company specialising in mental health, gut health and female hormones. Health food, exercise and bringing people happiness are Stephanie’s biggest drivers in life, with travel, pets and adventure filling up her free-time.