Kids health

Treats have basically replaced snacks—and that’s really bad for kids

Meant to be a once-in-a-while thing, treats are now ubiquitous in kids' daily lives.

“I’m hungry. Can I have a snack?”

What do you usually offer when you get this request? Is it, in fact, a snack—or is it actually a treat?

By definition, a treat is something that gives great pleasure and is out of the ordinary. It’s the latter part of the definition that no longer seems to be the case in our food obsessed-culture. Treats are everywhere in kids’ lives: daycare, school, camp, sports, parties, play dates… We’re in the midst of a treat epidemic!

Don’t get me wrong. I may be a dietitian, but I’m also a chocolate-everyday kind of gal, so I totally get that there’s room for treats in both adults’ and kids’ diets. But if every snack occasion for your child is actually filled with treats, it can set them up for an unhealthy future.

What’s the differences between a snack and a treat?

Children have smaller tummies than adults, so they need between-meal snacks for energy and nutrition. A “snack” is almost a mini-meal, made up of whole foods—examples include carrots, apples, almonds and hummus. These foods are brimming with essential nutrients that little bodies require for normal growth and development.

A treat is a less-nutritious food that contains mostly sugar, starch, fat and salt. Any processed salty or sweet snack is considered a treat: think chocolate bars, chips, pastries, candy and ice cream. And it doesn’t matter if it’s marketed deceptively as “fat free” (like pretzels) or “made with real fruit” (like some gummy candy); if it’s a processed treat, it lacks nutritional value, and it simply doesn’t compare with an orange or a chickpea.

What happens when a kid eats treats instead of snacks? They don’t get the sustainable energy they need to concentrate and thrive. (Many studies show that kids who have healthier diets also have better academic performance.) Treats don’t provide the nutrients that kids need, and if little tummies are filled with junk, there’s less room for nourishing food. Plus, treats have lots of calories, which contribute to the ongoing childhood obesity epidemic.

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How often should kids have treats?

There’s no set answer to this question. Even dietitians differ in their answers; some say a few times a week, others say a few times a day. Some dietitians recommend that you don’t have a set treat plan at all—rather, that that you should offer treats at random, leaving the kids with no expectations. That works too. What matters the most, in my opinion, is the portion size of the treat, and how it’s introduced to your children.

Here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Educate your kids about the difference between a snack and a treat. Kids as young as three or four can begin to grasp the concept.
  • If you choose to offer one treat a day, let your kids decide when they can have it. I’ve seen kids who want a treat a recess because their friends have one, while others prefer to have dessert after dinner.
  • Keep treat sizes small, in the 100-200 calorie range. Examples: A half-cup of ice cream, three pieces of licorice or three sandwich cookies. A gargantuan piece of triple chocolate fudge cake or a family-sized bag of chips is overdoing it.
  • Explain the 80/20 rule to your kids. If they eat well 80 percent of the time, there’s always 20 percent room for some treats. A small treat in an otherwise healthy diet is not a concern; it’s the whole diet that matters most.

How to get your kid to eat fewer treats

If you tend to be the treat-giver, try to make small changes when you grocery shop. Buy more whole foods and take the time to research and create delicious, kid-friendly snacks that fill the hunger gap with much-needed nutrients.

It’s easier to control the treats you give your kids than it is to say no to every lollipop from well-meaning teachers, coaches and friends. Treats are everywhere and trying to halt them altogether is never going to work. If you know treats are coming (birthday party, post-soccer game, etc.), plan for it. Make that the daily or weekly treat. If treats come too often and it’s bothering you, tell the offending grown-up that you prefer to be the one providing treats to your child. You have that right.

And when the kids sleep at grandma’s and enjoy chocolate chip waffles and ice cream for breakfast, know that food doesn’t only have one role. Sometimes it nourishes the body, and other times it’s part of creating lifelong memories. And that’s okay too.

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