Big Meals or Frequent Snacking: which eating habit is healthier for kids?
The work-from-home life has thrown a monkey wrench into the schedules of both parents and children. Is it important to still follow the traditional meal schedules, or is frequent snacking a viable alternative?
Majority of us grew up with having breakfast, lunch and dinner, with snacks in between, and to some extent, a “midnight snack”. In total that is 3 “big meals” and 3 snacks in a day. However, as our lives get busier and busier and with the advent of hybrid lifestyle and work conditions, feeding our kids likewise has taken on a different routine. Snacking is therefore on the rise as millennial parents take a different approach to feeding.
It is important though that we know the difference between a big meal and a snack. If we are to base this on a food plate, in our case the FNRI’s Pinggang Pinoy, a big meal is comprised of a portion of meat, a portion of grain/rice, a portion of fruits, and or vegetable and beverage. A snack typically consists of any serving portion of meat or grain/rice or fruit/vegetable or a beverage that is nutrient-dense such as milk. By nutrient-dense, I mean that this should be able to provide for any or all of the macronutrients: carbohydrates, protein, fats and any or all of the micronutrients: vitamins, minerals, and other important nutrients.
Parents are often challenged when it comes to achieving the recommended big meal intake, thus the option to provide for small frequent meals and this is where snacking comes into the picture. Kids, especially at pre-school age , have limited stomach capacities for really big or complete meals at any one time. So instead of forcing them to finish their big meals, smaller meals or snacks do the job.
Snacks, however, are often associated with high sugar (sucrose), high trans fats, and high salt content. Chips, cookies, and other baked goods are classic examples . However, with the advent of healthier mindsets among parents, which includes limiting sucrose, trans-fat, and sodium intake, healthy snacks have become a growing trend. A snack is considered healthy if it deliver benefits such as providing kids with energy, growth, and immunity nutrients.
They should be able to provide the needed calories from protein, fats, carbohydrates, and micronutrients. Whole foods like a fruit for example or an egg can be considered as healthy snacks or small meals. However, due to the use of a snack as a ”grab and go” food, a majority of snacks tend to be processed, product developed to be big in flavor to ensure they are eaten, while remaining small in size. If we are to break processed snacks into categories :
a. Bars – mostly a source of proteins to give one that protein boost. There are plant based variants and animal based as well; there are seed and/or nut-based ones
b. Meat snacks - dried meat snacks like beef jerky
c. Salty snacks – potato chips
d. Baked goodies – cookies, breads
Snacks should be served with some variety. Parents may decide to go vegetarian one day and have some meat the next, providing their kids with a range of options to meet their nutritional requirements. Mix and match refrigerated snacks and mini meals like a salad bar or salad boxes. Whatever the next big snack may be, it is important for parents that they be affordable, convenient, and offer healthy ingredients. Kids burn what they eat at a very fast pace, and small, frequent meals may be what is needed to ensure that they are fueled for a 24 hour period.
At the end of the day it is really not a question of whether big meals of frequent snacking is heathier but whether we are providing the complete nutritional requirements of our kids with consideration on the following:
1. Meeting their energy requirements : kids 3 - 5 years old are recommended to have a daily calorie/energy intake of at least 1300 calories; 6 – 9 years old are recommended to have a daily calorie/energy intake of at least 1500 calories.( FNRI-DOST Philippine Dietary Reference Intakes 2015). Giving them way beyond this recommendation can lead to obesity .
2. Ensuring food intake comes from a variety of foods coming within the 7 food groups
3. Limiting sodium, sucrose and trans-fats. (trans fats are those fats abundant in fast food dishes such as fries or burgers)
With these tips in mind, feel free to feed your kids according to the routine that works both for you and for them. Whichever eating habit lets them meet their energy and nutritional requirements while also allowing you to get on with and be productive during your day is what you should go for.
About The Expert
Mary Jude Barba-Icasiano
Mary Jude Barba-Icasiano is a graduate of Food Science and Technology from the Philippine Women’s University, with a Master’s degree in Food Science from the same. Her expertise in food science and nutrition spans more than 30 years with the academe, as well as working with food ingredients, food processing, and in the infant and young child nutrition industries.
Mrs. Icasiano is a member of the Board of Directors and Treasurer of the Philippines Association of Nutrition; she is an active member of the Philippines Association of Food Technologists and the Institute of Food Technologists of America where she is seeking accreditation as a Certified Food Scientist.
Mrs. Icasiano is married to Juan Carmelo and they have two grown-up children.
The views and opinions expressed by the writer are his/her own, and does not state or reflect those of Wyeth Nutrition and its principals.