An interview with Sally Kuzemchak
Every parent in America wants their children to eat well, but we are constantly battling the onslaught of advertising from the big food companies, Coke machines in schools, and processed foods that create addictions in our children. How can we take the power back? One way is to commit to healthy eating in your own family, and make small steps to help your community to do the same. On her blog, RealMomNutrition.com, “Snacktivist” Sally Kuzemchak promotes healthy snacking at school, activities and home, with strategies and resources for parents to make change while keeping it real (perfection is not a prerequisite!). We talked with Sally about how she started “Snacktivism,” how she helps her kids create healthy snacking habits, and how you can improve the snacking culture in your kids’ community.
Mia: Your blog has a section on what you call “Snacktivism” where you promote changing the snacking culture, including a “Soccer Snacktivism Handbook.” Why focus on snacking?
Sally: As my two young boys became involved in more sports and activities, I noticed that snacks were being offered at every turn, even though they weren’t always necessary. The snacks were foods like Ritz Bits and Capri Suns, which I was fine with my boys having every once in a while – say, at a party – but I wasn’t happy with them eating these so frequently, or in large quantities. It seemed like that kind of snack food was everywhere, and I wanted to change the choice to a healthier one. I began with their soccer team, asking coaches and team parents to bring fruit instead of junk food, and water instead of sugary drinks. From there, the idea spread to friends and their kids, then to other teams.
I developed the Snacktivism section on my blog to provide resources for other parents to make similar change. I know a lot of parents are intimidated by the prospect of speaking up about all the snacking, but they do want to address it. They may not know how, or they may feel nervous about initiating the conversation, and some worry about being ostracized by other parents – they don’t want to be “that parent.” So I focus on giving parents the tools, resources, and encouragement to speak up and make healthy change.
Mia: How did you approach coaches and parents? Was there any resistance from them, or from the kids?
Sally: A few years ago, I emailed the boys’ soccer coach and suggested we switch to water and fresh fruit, defining exactly what I meant by “fruit”, so parents wouldn’t bring things like gummy fruit snacks or yogurt-covered raisins, which are high in sugar and additives. I made a case for fresh fruit – it’s cheaper, it’s better for our environment, and it’s better for our kids – and I was pleasantly surprised that everyone agreed. Now when I approach coaches I say, why don’t we eliminate the snack altogether? I don’t think kids need a snack right after activities, if they live close enough that in just minutes they will home, and it takes an item off the parents’ to-do list. But kids like to hang around after the game a bit, sharing a snack together, and that’s fine. I approached different sports leagues to change to fruit and water only, but they didn’t want to dictate what parents could bring, so I approached the teams directly instead, and healthier snacking has been catching on. I even heard from people in my community that they’re seeing a lot more fresh fruit on the field these days.
I did get a little bit of resistance. Some people say, “it’s only once a week, a donut won’t hurt.” But if your children are involved in multiple activities, it’s more than once a week. And you also can’t always control how much your kid is eating – did he have one donut or three? I don’t get pushback from the kids, but sometimes I get it from the parents. When I was growing up playing sports, we didn’t even have snacks! Maybe we had orange slices at halftime. It’s the parents who invented this culture of the sports snack. And of course kids love it, because who wouldn’t want to eat Chee-tos or get a goody bag of candy? We can’t expect kids to say, “No thank you on the candy, I’m going to go home and eat a healthy dinner.” But kids love fruit as a snack, and people are on board with making better choices for kids, so overall the response has been overwhelmingly positive.
Mia: So cleaning up snacks is one strategy – what about hunger? If you bring cookies and Gatorade to sports practice they’ll take it, but no one really questions whether they’re hungry.
Sally: I think everyone struggles with this – moms and kids. Most of us when offered a delicious treat will enjoy it, even if we’re not that hungry. From an evolutionary standpoint, our bodies are designed to take in fat and sugar and calories when we can – because who knew when we would eat next – but of course now that’s not an issue, we eat all the time! But we still have that desire for sugar, fat, and salt. And the big companies know this and actually engineer junk food and sweets to appeal to us and create addictions.
When my kids are hungry for a snack, I offer apples slices or a banana. And instead of carrying tons of snacks in my purse, I just carry raisins. It’s hard having hungry kids when you’re running from appointments to errands, and I know if they are really hungry they’ll eat the raisins. And if they don’t want the apple or the raisins, chances are they want something specific – they’re thinking about the cookies we baked yesterday, or potato chips – so that’s how I judge. If you’re not hungry enough for the fruit, maybe you’re not hungry, so why don’t we go read a book or play a game. In the hour before dinner I only serve raw vegetables, so if they don’t want those, they can just wait for dinner.
Mia: Great idea to offer only raw vegetables before dinner – and that’s an easy change to make right away. Let’s talk about other snacking issues. I know many moms do an after-school snack – and sometimes they cave to the request for sweets or junk food out of guilt from being away all day, or out of fear they will deprive their kids.
Sally: I know those concerns, both as a dietitian and a mom. My younger son, in kindergarten, wants something to eat right when I pick him up from school, so I bring an apple or a pear, any easy, portable fruit. It’s become a habit, or it’s possible he’s hungry. But if eating an apple when he leaves school has become a habit, that’s okay with me. I send along fruit for school snacktime too. The kids get plenty of other nutrients at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, so I don’t worry about them snacking on fruit. Which is not to say we don’t enjoy treats! I love to bake, so we might enjoy a cookie together after school. I try to keep track in my head, though, so if they ask for a cookie after dinner, I say, “Remember, you had a brownie at the party at school,” or, “Remember, we had those cookies when we got home.” Some days I just forget, or there’s a birthday, or a neighbor brings us cupcakes – but that’s what Real Mom Nutrition is all about. Nobody gets it perfectly every day – I certainly don’t! And there are days that my kids get way too much sugar. But at least I’m trying to think about it and, most importantly, I’m trying to get them to think about it.
Mia: And how did you decide on fruit and baked goods for your children’s snacks? Are you thinking about things like sugar?
Sally: Yes. When I made my mom’s Christmas cookies I used shortening because I wanted them to taste like my mom’s cookies. But if I’m doing something like zucchini bread, I’ll certainly substitute whole wheat flour, and I throw flax seed into a lot of things – but I don’t delude myself that those baked goods are healthy snacks we can eat all the time. It’s still a cookie, but why not try to get a bit of whole wheat flour in there? And I like my kids getting used to that taste, too, because I think that’s going to serve them well.
Mia: How do you handle all the junk and sweets at birthday parties?
Sally: I know a lot of parents monitor what their kids eat at parties, but I don’t. We only do our kids’ parties every other year; it was too expensive and unnecessary, so we do a little family party on off-years. But each birthday I do cake and ice cream – and it’s not some kind of special “no-sugar-added” cake! My older son wanted root beer floats at his last birthday, which was fine. But if we have cake, ice cream and a sweet drink, I’m not going to have a bunch of other stuff. And I don’t do candy/goody bags. One year we had a John Deere party, so they all got Matchbox John Deere trucks. If we do a neighborhood picnic at the house, I usually do water for the kids, because sugary drinks are an issue for me. I don’t think kids are fixated on food and drink at parties; they’re just excited because they’re together. As long as the kids blow out the candles and have a piece of cake, they don’t really care what the other things are. So again, you can look at it the same way as keeping track of the snacks your kids eat in a day, or over the week. You want to just keep your eye on the bigger picture: If your kids are going to enjoy a birthday cake and ice cream, I don’t think there’s a need to have bowls of candy and potato chips around, too.
Mia: I agree. It’s really a lot about how parents manage the environment. The kids often won’t miss the junk that’s not there, as long as they’re having fun. Your idea for creating a healthy environment at games by bringing fruit sounds great to me, but I feel like there’s a myth out there that fruit is not filling or substantial enough.
Sally: I’ve seen that too. Sometimes parents will say, “My child is hungry after the game and needs more than a piece of fruit.” So I tell them he can have a banana with the team, then eat at home if he’s still hungry. You know your child best. But according to the statistics, most children are not getting enough fruits and vegetables on a daily basis. Fruit’s got fiber, vitamins, anti-oxidants, it provides hydration and carbohydrates which are great for refueling energy after sports, and it’s filling – so it’s the whole package versus drinking processed juice, with no fiber and so much more natural sugar than a piece of fruit. Maybe fruit’s not always going to work, but if they’re hungry, they’ll eat the apple; if they’re not hungry, they won’t. But at least we haven’t given them cupcakes that they would eat even if they weren’t hungry.
Mia: Do you have tips for moms who are new to healthy snacking? I think we all like fruit but we might worry about variety, and then, as you said, there’s the challenge of changing up the cheese curls and drink boxes the kids have gotten used to.
Sally: First of all, parents just have to decide what they’re comfortable with. There isn’t a “one size fits all” solution. Some parents are fine with giving their kids a sweet treat every day. Other parents don’t want any added sugar, or only once a week, or only on a birthday. Whatever you decide, that’s your value as a parent. But once you decide that, then you need to communicate it to your kids. You can say, “To keep us all healthy, we’re going to limit ourselves to one treat a day.” Then remind them – “You had that sweet treat in your lunchbox, so we’re going to skip it after dinner.” Or if you’re off to a party – “You know what, we’re going to have a lot of stuff at this party, so let’s skip the sweet drink at this other event.” That’s a reasonable approach.
It can be hard, because people know they want to be healthy, but there are so many big companies that have told us that goldfish and Cheerios, or even organic cookies, crackers or granola bars, are good choices. But processed foods are most often high in sugar, sodium, and additives. So it’s important to read labels closely – or better yet, just snack on natural, whole foods. That’s why I suggest not bringing snacks to sports or clubs at all – there’s so much disagreement about what is “healthy.” If we’re not doing just fruit and water at the field, it’s easier to just make our own decisions at home.
Mia: The last thing I wanted to touch on is how much better healthy snacking can be for your wallet. Is fruit generally cheaper than other snack alternatives?
Sally: Yes. Fruit is fairly cheap and easy, and it’s better for the planet, too. I usually put the banana example in my team letter — with bunches of bananas, I can feed a whole team for under $5. Of course it’s not as cheap if you’re going to get black raspberries for the whole team. But what I see at our soccer fields are individual bags of Ritz Bits and Capri Sun. Together, that’s plenty more than $5, and there are Capri Sun packages lying all over and it’s a waste. The kids can fill up their water bottles; they don’t need an extra drink, especially one filled with sugar, chemicals and dyes.
Mia: I could not agree more – Mother Nature doesn’t make blue drinks! Sally, thank you so much for talking with me today. Your stand against snacking is inspiring, and I know our readers will love your handbook on how to make change in their own communities. We look forward to more “fruit on the field” across America, and to healthier habits for our kids. Thank you!
At StayBasic we believe that every concerned mom, working together, can change the way our families eat – and that in changing our own lives for the better, we can help others to do that too.
Change at home takes action, and change in your community requires the confidence to speak up – and we are here to provide you with the resources to do both. Here are five of Sally and Mia’s action items to bring healthy snacking into your home and out to your community.
Be the change you want to see. One easy change you can make right now is to commit to choosing healthy snacks – for yourself and your family. Keep in mind how many times your kids have snacks, and what they snack on, throughout the day or week, and tip the balance toward whole foods. Bring fruit for groups when you’re designated to bring a snack. Bunches of bananas are easy and can feed lots of people for little money; slices of watermelon or cantaloupe are also great. Or try fruit kabobs – skewers with chunks of melon and strawberries – or tiny paper bags with grapes. Kids love anything they can just grab and eat while hanging out with their team, club or classmates.
Be patient. Changing habits and traditions takes time, so honor your commitments, but don’t put too much pressure on yourself or your kids to be perfect. Understanding how to listen to one’s body and make wise choices takes time. “I struggle with this, too,” Sally says. “I have a huge sweet tooth and resisting every cookie is unrealistic. But some parents put a lot of pressure on kids to understand that sugar is not good for them, and be okay with that, when they’re only seven.” It’s important to teach kids how different foods affect their bodies, but it’s just as important to be patient with them – and with ourselves – as they learn how to make better choices.
Improve the environment. Creating a healthy environment is an easy way to ensure good choices in a group setting. “I don’t begrudge kids for wanting cookies or Gatorade – to them, those are delicious,” Sally says. “But sometimes I hear parents say, ‘My child would choose the apple over the cookie.’ Well, my children love apples and they would still choose the cookie and that’s okay – so how about we change the environment so they don’t have to make that choice?” When fruits and vegetables are the only thing available, kids are also more likely to eat them because they see the other kids eating them. “That will improve their habits, their nutrition, and their overall health.”
Talk about food with your kids. Talk about how you feel after eating – and not just on a holiday when you’re groaning about being overstuffed! After eating you might say, “I’ve eaten just the right amount, I feel perfect,” or, “Those veggies made me feel more energized,” or, “That cupcake made me feel a little crazy!” Talking out loud about how you feel, and asking your kids how they feel after eating whole foods or junk foods, helps them make the connection between eating healthy and feeling good. Then they will be better equipped to make healthy choices on their own.
Talk about food with your community. Speak up! You have the power to make healthy change your kids and your community. Check out Sally’s Sports Snacktivism Handbook for guidelines and FAQs, templates for letters to coaches and teams, and a revealing “soccer snack slideshow.” Then use these resources to approach school leaders, clubs, or anyone who can help you make change on a larger scale in your community. Know that one person can change many lives for the better – and that person can be you!