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Snack Food Nation: How Kids Are Conditioned to Snack

Desperate parents whip out the snack bag to prevent meltdowns on errand expeditions or to occupy the bored child or just simply because it's easy.
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"I love your ponytail. It's so silky and lovely," my seven-year-old daughter Lexi cooed to her Malibu Barbie, in the voice of Malibu's brunette BFF Jasmine. "Thank you. Is it snack time yet?" Malibu responded.

Apparently, even Barbie dolls need to nosh.

But snack time is not just child's play. Now I'm not an epidemiologist or a pediatrician, but I am a mom who spends an inordinate amount of time both giving into and fending off snack requests from my kids. As September was National Childhood Obesity Awareness Month, I think, we parents need to collectively wage war against too many snacks.

My hunch is that our overweight nation full of overstuffed kids starts with snacks and begins with babies.

We are all guilty of thrusting a bottle or nipple into the mouth of a crying infant who has already eaten. We then use food as bribes to appease the whining and cranky toddler. From cleverly packaged organic cookies to crisp 100 Calorie chips, we offer snacks as distraction and entertainment. Desperate parents whip out the snack bag to prevent meltdowns on errand expeditions or to occupy the bored child or just simply because it's easy.

I confess that in my house it started with Veggie Booty -- or as we referred to it, Kale Crack for kids. As we hustled endlessly from car to stroller to name-that-enrichment-class, my toddlers were always packing a snack. Granted, most were "healthy," but still they didn't go anywhere without a stash of some thing crunchy.

And then there was the sippy cup -- their cigarette. A diluted apple juice addiction that soothed them as soon as they gripped the handles As they got older, they moved on to the juice box -- six ounces of fruit-flavored heroin housed in a plastic coated box complete with precious straw. They chased the coveted juice box with abandon. So my bribe often started with something like, "if you're good while I grocery shop, you'll get a juice box!"

Recently, CBS Evening News' Katie Couric tweeted that 50 percent of all three- to six-year-old girls think they are fat. Some may blame this statistic on the warped images little girls have of themselves from watching the iCarlys and Mileys on TV. But shockingly today, about one in three American kids and teens is overweight or obese, nearly triple the rate in 1963. And childhood obesity is the number one concern of parents, trumping drug abuse and smoking.

Blame it on video games and cuts in our schools' physical education budgets or hormones in meat and milk and toxic chemicals in plastic. All of these may be contributing to an obesity epidemic in America. But I'd argue that our snack food nation is also at least partly to blame.

We are creating a generation of socialized snackers. Every activity from infant music class to kiddie soccer comes with a treat as a "reward." Ironically, even on the playground, kids are taking mini-snack breaks. And nursery schools that have children for a mere two hours a day still make time for snack time. Some may argue that practicing patience for your juice and how to conscientiously throw away the cup are important social skills. But seriously, do toddlers really need to eat again at 9:30 am?

What's more absurd is that school-age children who play an hour of soccer or baseball have a parent assigned to snack duty who brings treats to the field.

Back in the pre-microwave era when families shared the same meal at the same time and moms didn't double duty as short order cooks, there was a whole lot less snacking going on. The idea that you were going to ruin your appetite and not eat the meatloaf that your mom slaved over meant that mothers fiercely protected mealtime.

Fortunately, our First Mom-in-Chief, Michelle Obama, has made it her mission to regulate American kid consumption and reduce the expanding waistlines of our nation's children. Her "Let's Move" program is aimed at combating childhood obesity at every stage, from introducing kids to organic arugula to increasing cardio fitness.

Aside from upping our kids' exercise, we need to start curbing the calories and changing our culture of snack-as-reward. I'd imagine that a parent bringing a processed food as a post-game treat to Sasha or Malia's basketball games may be even less welcome than a Tea Party supporter. So I encourage our First Lady to join in combat against excessive extracurricular snacks.

For a grazer like me who would prefer nibbling tapas over wolfing three squares, I totally get the desire to eat throughout the day. But the next time I hear my kids beg for a snack, an hour after lunch, I may invent a crazy game called Let's See if We Can Go from Lunch to Dinner without Snacking. And whoever wins, gets a juice box.

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