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How to do Bedtime Snacks the Right Way

By Jill Castle, MS, RDN

The messaging on snacking is changing. The negative publicity on snacks does have some merit — many children are getting too many snacks and the wrong kind, putting a heavy dent in their calorie budgets.

The 2008 Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study (FITS) showed that young children were consistently getting more calories than their estimated needs. For example, 12-23 month olds needed about 900 calories per day, yet were consuming about 1140 calories a day. Two- to 3-year-olds were eating 1260 calories compared to their estimated needs of 1100 calories per day.

Over time, these calorie overages may add up to excess body weight.

Which foods were contributing the extra calories?

While this study didn’t center solely on snacks, researchers did tease out which types of foods were most troublesome for young children. According to FITS, about 72 percent of young children aged 1 to 2 years consume a dessert, a sweet treat like cookies or candy, or a sweetened beverage every day. That number goes up to 82 percent of 2- to 3-year-olds and 89 percent of 3- to 4-year-olds. Other research on snacking trends amongst all children are showing three snacks per day, and about 27 percent of total calories eaten coming from snacks.

Do snacks have a role in a young child’s diet?

Toddlers and young preschoolers are unique in their nutritional needs. With growing bodies and little tummies, young children have high nutrient needs and limited capacity to eat large quantities of food at one sitting. Thus, they may be better able to meet their nutritional needs with a healthy blend of meals and snacks throughout the day.

For some kids, the bedtime snack is an ideal time to round out the day of nutrition, offering up calories and nutrients that may have been missed during the day. Other children may sleep better with a full belly. And still other kids who may be picky or underweight may rely on a bedtime snack to gain weight and match the day’s calorie needs. Yet, some toddlers may be big eaters and not require a bedtime snack. You know your child best.

What you can do

One tendency of young children is to not get enough fruits and vegetables in their diets. Offering fruits and vegetables instead of sweets at snack time may work well to reduce excess calories and improve overall nutrient intake (fruits and vegetables contain fewer calories and higher levels of nutrients than sweetened drinks or sugary treats).

Whether your child has a snack at bedtime or not isn’t the real issue. The real issue is the type of food you offer at the end of the day and whether it’s needed. In other words, is the bedtime snack healthy and purposeful?

As always, and with your child’s current and future health in mind, steer clear of sweet drinks and sugary foods at snack time. These are special treats and shouldn’t be part of the daily, routine offerings.

If you feel your child needs a bedtime snack, keep it healthy! Perhaps a small cup of milk at bedtime would work, or a small bowl of dry, unsweetened cereal. Here are some other suggestions:

A small dish of berries

Half a sliced apple or banana

A few julienned baby carrots and hummus or guacamole

A small graham cracker square with a thin swipe of peanut butter

Two crackers and a half slice of cheese

A small container of plain or flavored yogurt

Sources:

  • Fox et al
  • Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study: what foods are infants and toddlers eating? J Am Diet Assoc 2004; 104: s22-s30. Health Affairs
  • Trends in Snacking Amongst US Children. Briefel et al
  • The Feeding Infants and Toddlers study 2008: Study design and methods
  • J Am Diet Assoc 2010; 110:S16-S26. Saavedra JM
  • Lessons from the Feeding Infants and Toddlers Study in North America: What children eat, and implications for obesity prevention
  • Ann Nutr Metab 2013; 62(suppl 3): 27-36.

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