De Gustibus: Snack Time Never Ends

Great article from The New York Times
By
JENNIFER STEINHAUER

Of the many horrors that lurk in the e-mail in-box of a working parent — dental reminders, Facebook invitations involving some weird farm, “thoughts” from the boss — nothing quite rivals the snack request.

Not a month goes by without someone somewhere asking me to serve up some snack for an event that one of my children will attend and that, generally speaking, will not last more than 90 minutes.

During a single week in December, I was pinged with requests to bring a little food for one play rehearsal, three religious-school events, a school administrative meeting, two soccer games and two multicultural festivals. (O.K., so multicultural day is one of my favorite events of the school year. Step away from the Sichuan dumplings, kids, Hannah’s mom is moving in! Still.)

The obligations to bring a little something to eat extend to the adult world, too — I’ve baked for PTA meetings and child-rearing seminars that I didn’t even attend. But when it comes to American boys and girls, snacks seem both mandatory and constant. Apparently, we have collectively decided as a culture that it is impossible for children to take part in any activity without simultaneously shoving something into their pie holes.

“Children used to come home, change into play clothes and go outside and play with other children,” said Joanne Ikeda, a nutritionist emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley. “There were not snack machines, and the gas stations only sold gas. Now there are just so many more opportunities to snack and so many activities after school to have snacks.”

Between 1977 and 2002, the percent of the American population eating three or more snacks a day increased to 42 percent from 11 percent, according to a large study of American nutritional habits conducted by the Agriculture Department with the Department of Health and Human Services.

Further, researchers found, the percent of children surveyed who said they had eaten three meals on the previous day went down, while those who had had a snack went up more than 40 percent.

“None of this trend has reversed,” said Rhonda Sebastian, a nutritionist with the Agricultural Research Service, the unit of the Agriculture Department that participated in the survey. (The data for 2008 exists but the snacking component has not yet been analyzed.) “Food is everywhere now. It is part of everything.” I began to wonder how other parents see all this extracurricular eating, so I asked around a bit. Apparently, I am not the only one being driven crazy.

“It has all just gotten out of hand,” said Sean O’Neill, an illustrator and father of two in Chicago. Mr. O’Neill wonders why snacks must be served at every sporting event, even those taking place at 10 a.m. or an hour before lunch.

“The kids are playing baseball, they are covered in Chicago Park District dirt and then they eat a handful of fruit bites,” he said. “It’s pretty disgusting.”

Some of the moms I see around the school corridors and the soccer field told me they felt backed into a corner by the omnipresence of snacks.

Once a week, Vivian Zachary’s 6-year-old son, Joel, goes dashing for the vending machine at the gym after his gymnastics class ends at 5 p.m. “Last week it was a Fruit Roll-Up and a can of 7Up,” Ms. Zachary wrote in an e-mail message. “I’m not sure why I let this go on, and I often think that if I were a better parent, or at least more able to tolerate incessant complaining, I would let him buy the snacks but not actually consume them until after dinner. But I have already established the pattern (the ‘rule’ in Joel’s mind), so there’s no going back now.”

The spread of snacking has been abetted by parental guilt, the much-lamented death of the family dinner, over-scheduled children. Kara Nielsen, a “trendologist” at the Center for Culinary Development, a brand development company in San Francisco, cites the proliferation of activities, from soccer to chess club to tutoring sessions, that now fill children’s afternoons.

“You’ve got this desire for parents to control their kid’s diet,” Ms. Nielsen added, “and add this with this increase in activities, so it has become up to the parents to provide the snacks. And the marketers have picked up on this.”

Indeed, this nation consumed $68.1 billion in packaged snack foods in 2008, up from $60 billion in 2004, according to Packaged Facts, a consumer research group. One of the newest concepts — and among the best sellers, Ms. Nielsen said — are 100-calorie packs of cookies and other junk foods. They are targeted at parents, who are always looking for something to toss into the backpack for after-school time.

Fast-food restaurants are in on the act, and over the last two years have begun to introduce their own mini-meals, like the McDonald’s Snack Wrap. According to the Agriculture Department, American children get 40 percent of their calories from food of poor nutritional quality.

What is especially baffling where I live, in Los Angeles, is how often the kind of parental paranoia that obsesses about school ratings, vaccines and myriad imagined plagues is matched by utter disregard for the nutritional downsides of mowing down Fruit by the Foot every afternoon at 4. Rarely do I see a parent show up on the soccer field with a homemade snack, or even a bag of carrots. Oreos are the post-game snack of choice, even in sports leagues dominated by upper-income parents.

“There is definitely a big disconnect,” said Dr. Howard Taras, a pediatrics professor at the University of California, San Diego, who specializes in community and school health policies. “I think there is this natural tendency among parents to not want their child to go hungry. It is more difficult for them to think about the long-term outlook for the child.”

Ellyn Satter, a dietitian and family therapist, thinks there is little point in worrying too much about what children are eating — unless it is “pure sugar,” like juice, she said — or how much, because children self-regulate portions. The key, she said, is to end grazing. “The parents’ job is to do the what, when and where of feeding,” she said, “and it is up to the children to do the how much and whether of eating. In order to have successful family meals, you have to structure the snacks.”

Carolynne Dyner sees the purpose of snacks for her children, Quinn, who is 7, and Sadie, 5, through a fairly simple prism. “To stave off tantrums, of course,” she said. From their days caring for infants, she said, parents are conditioned to be prepared for a sudden attack of hunger. And so she keeps her car and purse amply packed with pretzels, baggies of Cinnamon Life cereal, Goldfish crackers and Clif bars.

For her children, little bites between meals have in some ways supplanted the meals themselves. “They usually need a snack midmorning and midafternoon,” explained Ms. Dyner, who lives in Beverly Hills, Calif. “There may be a third snack, and this is usually due to the fact that our kids didn’t care much for what we provided for dinner, so now it is 7:30 and they are hungry. At this point we may give them a yogurt.”

Parents who give in too many times may find that snacks are the culinary equivalent of letting your 2-year-old sleep in your bed. “People get themselves into these habits, which they later regret tremendously,” said Ms. Ikeda, the nutritionist. “We do, as parents, make mistakes and then we either have to live with them or suffer the consequences in fixing them. It gets exhausting saying ‘no’ all the time.”

On the other hand, saying ‘yes’ can be tiring, too. I am happy to serve on any refreshment committee there is. I like to bake, and am far more efficient at that than at any other classroom obligation. Just ask the parent liaison for my younger child’s classroom, whose response to my failure to properly manage a canned goods drive was only slightly less frosty than that of a rogue nation asked to cease nuclear development.

But a person can’t just bake whole-wheat banana bread and call it a day. Here was the memo I received concerning my recent snack obligation for a play practice. “Please note, we have the following allergies in mini players: Peanuts, cashews, nuts, wheat, dairy, strawberries, milk, egg whites.”

Food allergies are a real problem. But did no one ponder the idea that perhaps the solution is for children to bring their own snacks?

Or to eat no snacks at all?

De Gustibus is an occasional forum for writers to employ opinion, argument or provocation in reflections on food or drink.

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