A friend recently shared with me a disagreement in her house about giving her kids food before bed. I sided with her husband in admitting that my kids get a bowl of cereal close to bedtime.

For full disclosure, this is my friend who calls me the world’s worst dietitian – in a loving, joking, semi-serious way. She has been witness to my love affair for sweets and carnival/county fair food. However, I’m a big believer in all foods fit, and in moderation. So when I told her about our breakfast before bed routine, it took a little bit of convincing that this was okay.

Our ritual started when my then almost-two year old would wake up in the middle of the night screaming that she was hungry. Manipulation or hunger? I couldn’t tell, but my need for sleep triumphed over any rational decision making and downstairs we would go for a mid-night snack. After downing a bowl of oatmeal squares, she would promptly fall sound asleep for the rest of the night. Common sense eventually prevailed and we moved our midnight snack to become part of our before bedtime routine instead.

Here are my kids, enjoying their "breakfast" before bedtime. Photo copyright Caroline Margolis.

Here are my kids, enjoying their “breakfast” before bedtime. Photo copyright Caroline Margolis.

Before you call me the worst parent ever (or worst dietitian as my friend loves to tease), let me rattle off some important facts about snacking in children.

• Contrary to what you may have heard, according to the American Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, there is little evidence that snacks, including before bedtime snacks, attribute to weight gain or obesity – at least healthy snacks, that is.

• Young children have small stomachs and are often not able to consume enough at mealtime to get all the nutrients they need. Healthy snacks can help fill in these nutrient gaps.

• It’s normal for children to get hungry every two to three hours given the size of their stomachs. We all know hunger leads to cranky kids. Two to three snacks a day, in addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, should keep the crankiness at bay and help them focus on playing, growing and learning!

• Young kids sometimes (a lot of times) have unreliable eating habits. Snacking helps make up for nutrients missed at skimpy meals and in turn, helps to help keep their energy up to fuel activity.

• Before bedtime snacks can, in fact, help your child sleep longer. Not only do snacks tide little stomachs over until the morning, but certain foods contain the amino acid tryptophan which helps the body produce serotonin – the “calming” hormone that helps the body relax before sleep. Milk is an example of a food containing tryptophan and probably the reason why warm milk has always been a popular part of pre-bedtime routines.

What constitutes a healthy snack? Snacks should include the same type of foods you would eat at other times of the day – lowfat dairy, lean protein, whole grains and fruits and vegetables. Remember, snacks aren’t meals, so keep them small and light, especially before bedtime. Avoid empty calorie snacks such as chips, fruit snacks and sweets. Aim for about 100 calories for smaller children and about double that for older adolescents and teenagers.

Smart snacks before bedtime include a mixture of carbohydrates and protein, which can help keep little stomachs full through the night. Examples of pre-bedtime snacks include:
• Bowl of whole grain cereal with lowfat milk
• Sliced apple or banana with peanut butter (or soy/sunflower butter)
• Lowfat yogurt with fresh fruit
• Cheese and crackers
• Slice of deli meat on whole wheat toast

Plan a bedtime snack about ½ hour to 1 hour before bed, which will allow time before bedtime routine starts and most importantly, allow them to brush their teeth!

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