Research over the past decade has shown that snacking is a very healthy way to eat. In most societies, people eat six meals a day. First, they eat breakfast, and then they eat a little midmorning snack before lunch. Between lunch and dinner they have a light snack which is called “tea” in Great Britain. Finally, they have a light, late-night snack.
In America, we tend to eat just three large meals a day, each one of which seems especially designed to make us tired and physically uncomfortable.
Think of the example of animals in the zoo versus those in the wild. In the zoo, animals are fed twice a day at regular hours and are not allowed much exercise. Obesity is a constant concern. In the wild, animals graze and eat often throughout the day. They get plenty of vigorous exercise. You rarely find animals in their natural habitat with weight problems.
Like so many nutritionists, I believe we should eat six small meals a day. The term that’s been coined for this kind of diet is “grazing”. Like animals in the field, we should eat a little bit of the right foods whenever we’re hungry. It’s by far the healthiest way to keep our body’s fuel level constant. Children should be allowed snacks all day long but they should be healthy snacks. Candies and pastries are out because they allow blood sugar levels to bounce up and down. These foods just slow children and make them cranky.
Snacks should be simple. Cut up fruits and vegetables. Make healthy dips. My daughter is often perfectly content with a small bunch of grapes or an orange. Make sure that your children know that foods are available whenever they want them. This prevents children from craving foods that aren’t healthy for them. It forestalls many of the eating disorders that are becoming so common among young people in our culture. Children who eat a little of the right foods whenever they’re hungry don’t get fat. They don’t binge. They don’t fixate on food. They develop healthy habits that will stay with them throughout their lives.
The rule that I encourage for everyone is ‘Eat when you are hungry and don’t eat when you’re not hungry.” Eat as much as you feel like eating. Don’t worry about set-in-stone mealtimes. With our daughter, we notice that she eats a large breakfast and a small lunch and then she grazes the rest of the day. We bake potatoes and always keep some stored cold in the refrigerator so a potato can be heated up quickly when she asks for one. My wife freeze fruit juice, or whole fruit puree’, in molds so she can have the pleasure of a frozen treat similar to a Popsicle® without all the sugar found in the commercial varieties.
The over-all message is: “Be flexible, but keep the foods you have available for snacking in your home as healthy as you possibly can.”