Sometimes being a mother is a lot like being a crime-scene investigator. The house would be reasonably clean and tidy when I went to bed, but I’d find evidence the next morning: dirty dishes stacked in the sink or beside beds, a gap in the fridge where I’d left some cheese planned for the next day’s dinner, empty potato-chip bags in the garbage can…
Mystery solved. It was another case of late-night noshing by my teens.
“Teens tend to be quite busy during the day and it can be easy for them to forget to eat enough,” says dietitian Tristaca Caldwell of Halifax. “In the evenings, when they have more downtime or are trying to focus on school work, that’s when their hunger hits and snacking is likely to happen.”
Snacking might not even be caused by genuine hunger, adds dietitian Karie Quinn of Grande Prairie, Alta. “It can be just habit, or boredom.”
Is late-night snacking a problem?
Not necessarily. “I do think it’s important for teens who are rapidly growing and developing to have a snack at night,” says Caldwell.
But it is a problem if that nightly snack is high in fat and sugar, and low in nutrition. For one thing, eating too much in the evening can mean your teen isn’t hungry at breakfast. Explains Quinn: “Fat takes longer to digest, so having a large bag of chips or an ice cream sundae in the evening means that food might still be digesting come morning, setting your teen up for a bad start to the day.”
Forming bad snack habits
Plus, this pattern of nighttime snacking can contribute to weight gain, says Caldwell. “If they’re not eating enough during the day, their metabolism can slow down. When they do give in to hunger in the evening, they may overcompensate and eat foods with lots of calories, but few nutrients. With their metabolism slowed and a lot of empty calories in their stomachs, they’re set up for weight gain.”
Break the snack cycle
It’s a cycle that can be hard to break. Try these ideas with your teen:
• Make sure you’re a good role model. Dietitian Vincent Ziccarelli of Port Moody, BC, says that many parents confess that they tend to snack in the evening, and often skip breakfast or settle for a cup of coffee. “Your example means everything,” he says.
• Have nutrient-dense, healthy foods available for your teen throughout the day, starting with breakfast. Caldwell suggests smoothies made with yogurt and frozen fruit, sprinkled with homemade trail mix.
• Talk about having enough energy to participate in sports and other activities — rather than about future health problems — when you discuss healthy eating with your teen, suggests Ziccarelli. They’ll relate better to these benefits than to more distant ones.
• If your mornings are busy, try prepping breakfast the night before. You can set out a bowl of high-fibre, low-sugar cereal with toppings before you go to bed, and pour the milk in the morning. Or make overnight oatmeal in the slow cooker and add peanut butter, fruit and a little maple syrup when your teen gets up.
• Prepare a substantial and healthy dinner. Ziccarelli urges parents to avoid packaged meals, which are often too high in salt, fat and calories. If your child’s schedule means he won’t be home to eat with the rest of the family, plan ahead to have something that can be reheated for him.
• Keep cut-up fruits and vegetables handy in containers in the fridge and teens will be more likely to eat them.
If snacking patterns continue to be an issue, Quinn suggests setting a family rule that all eating is done at the table, rather than in front of the TV or in bedrooms. “This can really help with bad eating patterns,” she says. “Otherwise, a distracted teen can eat more than he intended without even noticing. And, looking ahead, a teen who eats most of his meals and snacks in front of the TV will potentially continue to do so as an adult.”
“What is there to eat?”
When your teen asks for a snack, offer some of these yummy but healthier choices:
• low-fat popcorn with a handful of potato chips thrown in for seasoning and crunch (rather than a whole bag of chips)
• baked nachos with salsa, tomatoes, peppers and low-fat cheese
• pita cut in half and stuffed with salad greens, veggies and leftover meat
• raw veggies with hummus
• peanut butter on whole-grain toast
• crackers with bruschetta topping
• homemade muffins
• apple, cored, filled with brown sugar, cinnamon and raisins, baked in the microwave
• cut-up fruits with honey-yogurt dip
• English muffin topped with pizza sauce and toppings, browned in a toaster oven