Meal vs. Snack – 3 Things You Should Consider When Planning for Your Family

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March is National Nutrition Month®. Beyond the Table 2024 National Nutrition Month® Campaign by the Academy of Nutrition and Dietietics.

The theme of National Nutrition Month® 2024 is “Beyond the Table.” The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics theme brings focus to all the ways we eat – which includes around the table and on the go! I thought I would focus on this aspect and start the discussion with the 3 things you should consider when planning a meal vs. snack for your family – definitions, timing, and recommendations for different age groups. Let’s start with the definition of meal vs. snack!

What is a Meal?

Image of meal

It may seem obvious that most of us consider a meal to be either breakfast, lunch, or dinner. However, I like to consider the food components and nutritional balance when defining a meal vs. snack. So what constitutes a meal?

As a dietitian mom planning meals for my family, I ensure that there is a carbohydrate, protein, dietary fat, and fruit or vegetable at every meal. Combining these nutrients helps keep us full for the 3-4 hours until our next meal or snack. It also keeps us on track to meet our nutritional needs for the day. 

What is a carbohydrate and why do we need them at every meal?

Carbohydrates, or carbs, include foods such as bread, rice, potatoes, oatmeal, cereal, and corn. Carbohydrates are also one component of dairy products, beans, and legumes. (Technically speaking, fruits and vegetables are also carbohydrates, but I like to give them their own special place at the table.) Carbs have gotten a bad rap lately – they seem to be blamed for everything from gaining weight to raising blood sugar! The truth is that you can include carbs as part of a healthful diet, just like any other food or nutrient. In fact, they should be included as they provide many important benefits!

They are super important as they are our bodies main energy source. The body breaks down all sources of carbs and converts them to glucose, or blood sugar, which every cell in our body uses. EVERY. CELL. Our brain literally cannot function without blood sugar. This is why when tired or stressed we might encounter food cravings. Carbs are great for giving us that quick energy. 

The vast majority of us, and especially growing children and adolescents, should not avoid carbs! This is a major source of their energy and should make up ~50-60% of their intake. I have seen too many parents try to restrict or limit the carbohydrate intake of their kids with the good intention of “teaching them moderation” or “healthy eating habits.” I have also seen families that do not cook carbohydrates at dinner because the parents “don’t need them.” As parents, we need to separate our nutritional needs from our kids nutritional needs. Our bodies are typically no longer growing (unless you are a bodybuilder or have a medical reason to gain weight), and our metabolism begins to slow as we age. This is why many adults notice that they no longer eat as much, or “can’t eat the way they used to.” 

Our kids, on the other hand, are growing at a tremendous rate! I love reminding parents that besides infancy, the fastest period of growth is adolescence (defined as ages 12-18). This explains why teens “eat you out of house and home.” This is also a time where parents can unknowingly interfere with internal cues for hunger and fullness by trying to limit how much their kids eat … but that’s a topic for another blog post! What I want you to remember now is that our kiddos need the energy from carbs to support growth spurts, physical activity, brain development and function, hormonal balance, metabolic changes, and nutrient absorption. 

What is protein and why do we need it at every meal?

There are two main types of protein, animal-based and plant-based. Animal sources of protein include beef, chicken, turkey, pork, lamb, game meats, fish, shrimp, eggs, and dairy products such as milk, yogurt and cheese. Plant-based sources of protein include beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, and some milk alternatives such as soy milk.

I think many of us are familiar with the fact that protein is needed for muscle growth, but it does so much more than that! Did you know that protein is crucial for repair, too? So when you have an injury, are recovering from surgery, or are battling a sickness, your body requires even more protein! It is also responsible for hormone regulation, nutrient absorption, oxygen transportation, enzyme function, fluid balance, and healthy hair, skin and nails.

Most of us are pretty good at getting protein in at lunch and dinner, but often struggle to get a good source of protein at breakfast and with snacks. Research has shown that our body utilizes protein best when we take it in more evenly, several times throughout the day. And while carbs give us quick energy, protein helps us feel full for longer. This is why it is an important part of a meal vs. snack.

Shouldn’t I be avoiding added fats for my family?

Dietary fat is another food group that tends to be demonized from time to time. What is important to understand is that eating dietary fat does not = gaining fat weight. Yes, dietary fats do provide more energy for the body. But that is why the serving sizes for things like oil, avocado, butter, sour cream, and nuts are smaller than other food groups. 

There are actually so many benefits in ensuring that we have a healthy balance of fat in our diet. Dietary fats are what add flavor to foods, assist with satisfaction and fullness, aid in nutrient absorption and hormone production. Dietary fat is also crucial for brain development and function in growing children and adolescents.

Do I really need to include a fruit or vegetable at every meal?

The most recent data from the Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance System illustrated that only 7% of adolescents met daily fruit intake recommendations and just 2% met daily vegetable recommendations. Even I was shocked to see the numbers this low! If we are not including a fruit or vegetable with every meal, our kids are definitely not going to be meeting their needs! 

What is a Snack?

Image of snacks

People generally think of a snack as a smaller amount of food eaten between meals. I consider a snack an eating occurrence that will keep you satisfied for less than 2 hours. So what constitutes a snack? 

When working with families and teens I always provided education that a snack should consist of at least 2 food groups. The serving sizes will vary based on activity levels and time to the next meal. You may need a little trial and error to find the right snacks for your family. 

Food group pairings that I typically recommend are as follows:

  • Fruit/vegetable + protein
  • Fruit/vegetable + dietary fat
  • Protein + carbohydrate 
  • Carbohydrate + dietary fat

When Should I Eat a Meal Vs. Snack?

The challenge is that sometimes snacks can become as nutritionally dense as a meal, or interfere with meals. So how do you know when to eat a meal vs. snack? I like to look at two primary factors here: 1) how long is it until you will eat again? and 2) how hungry are you on a scale from 1-10?

When Should I Eat a Meal vs. Snack?

If you have 2-3 hours before your next meal, you should ensure that you have a solid snack that contains a protein and/or fat source. This will help you feel full longer, as proteins and fats can take up to a few hours to digest.

If you only have an hour until dinner is ready but you are “about to eat your arm hungry,” you should grab a small snack. In this case you might choose a small piece of fruit or a carbohydrate. These options will raise your blood sugar quickly, but you will also digest them more quickly. You should still be ready for a meal in about an hour. 

As I mentioned above, meals are meant to keep you satisfied for 3-4 hours. So if you have 4+ hours until your next meal, I advise that you eat a meal! If you eat a snack, you will likely end up searching for another snack before your meal. This can lead to overeating, not being hungry for the meal when it becomes time, and missing out on key nutrients.

Recommendations for Different Age Groups

As a parent, it can feel that our kids are constantly in the pantry looking for a snack. Uncertainty about how many snacks are actually needed can make us feel uneasy. Combine that with all the headlines we see about nutrition, and it’s no wonder that parents like you are confused about what and how many snacks to provide.

It’s important to point out that snacks are a essential part of a child’s diet when chosen and planned wisely. Nutrient-dense snacks, such as fruits, vegetables, nuts/nut butters, yogurt, and whole-grain options, can contribute to a well-rounded and balanced diet. The key is to strike a balance, ensuring that snacks complement regular meals and contribute to overall nutritional needs. So how many meals vs. snacks are needed? Let’s take a look at different age groups.

Toddler and preschool-aged kids, 1-4 years old

Most kiddos in this age group should have a schedule with 3 meals and 2 snacks. A typical schedule might look like this:

  • 7:00am: Breakfast
  • 9:30am: Snack
  • 12:00pm: Lunch
  • 3:00pm: Snack
  • 6:00pm: Dinner
Elementary school-aged kids, 5-11 years old

Elementary-school aged kids start to encounter the challenge of timed school days and activities. Adjustments might need to happen to accommodate their specific schedule. For this age group, I recommend 3 meals with 2-3 snacks depending on their activity level and timing of activities. Normally I am a “no snack after dinner” parent. However we don’t always have control over activity schedules and if they have a late practice or game, they may need a small snack afterward.

  • 6:30am: Breakfast
  • 9:00-10:00am: Snack
  • 11:00am-12:00pm: Lunch
  • 3:30-4:00pm: Snack
  • 6:00-6:30pm: Dinner
  • 8:00-9:00pm: Snack, if needed 

**Disclaimer: I fully recommend and support a bedtime of 8-8:30pm at this age but realize that activities often keep them up later on certain days of the week. In this case, you may need to adjust eating schedules.

Adolescents, 12-18 years old

I’ll say it again here to make sure you all heard it. Adolescence is a time period where our kids are growing at a rapid rate, second only to infancy! This is also a common time period for parents to start worrying about things like weight as kids go through puberty and body composition changes.

The school day schedule is also not conducive to nourishing a growing body – teachers don’t love kids eating snacks in class, schools don’t have proper breaks or long enough lunch periods, and don’t get me started on bathroom breaks! But I urge you to find ways to ensure that your child is still able to get in at least one snack at school and a solid lunch. Along with the adolescents I have worked with, I have my own middle-schooler assess her class schedule and speak with a teacher about her needs. I have even written notes to schools/teachers to allow snacks/water to be consumed in class. We should not accept that our kiddos stomachs are growling in class and affecting their ability to focus. Kids at this age still require 3 meals and 2-3 snacks per day, depending on activity levels.

  • 6:30-7:00am: Breakfast
  • 9:30-10:00am: Snack
  • 12:00-1:00pm: Lunch
  • 4:00pm: Snack
  • 6:00-7:30pm: Dinner
  • 8:00-9:00pm: Snack, if needed after physical activity

No matter what your child(s) age is, I strongly encourage you to have a set time for meals and snacks. The research shows that kids thrive on schedules, and the same goes for meal schedules. This helps them tune into hunger and fullness levels, and helps you feel more in charge of what and when they are eating. This also helps solve the never-ending “Mom, I’m hungry” struggle. By setting meal vs. snack times, your kids will learn the combination of foods they need, and their bodies will get accustomed to the eating schedule.

Need meal ideas? Check out our recipes for quick and easy dinner ideas!

About the Author

Dru Rosales

Dru Rosales, MS, RD, LD is a Registered and Licensed Dietitian. She specializes in children and adolescents with a focus on eating disorders, weight management, and sports nutrition. Dru received her Bachelor’s Degree in Kinesiology from the University of Southern California and her Master’s Degree in Nutritional Science from California State University, Los Angeles.

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