06 January 2010

Snack hack: Create single servings to teach portion control and increase independence

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I think I may have solved (or at least begun to solve) several seemingly unrelated problems with a single hack.

Problems:

Independence
My kids are old enough to get their own snacks, but they rely on me not only to tell them what's available, but to prepare it for them.

Portion control
One reason I haven't encouraged them to serve themselves is that their ideas of portion size are wildly different. My son, who struggles with his weight, eats much larger portions than he needs to (biggest problem: breakfast cereal). My daughter, who has had growth problems in the past and needs more calories, ends up leaving most of her snack on the plate, wasting a lot of food.

Mindless snacking
If left to their own devices, they would snack all afternoon.

Cleanup
Lots of dirty dishes from all of the snacks.

Solution:

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Portioning
I created single-serving snacks using Ziploc snack-size bags and Ball plastic freezer jars. I chose Ball jars because they're inexpensive, they're more compact and sturdy than other plasticware, they stack well, and they take up little space in the top rack of my dishwasher.

Into the Ziploc bags: chips, pretzels, crackers, cookies. I placed the savory snacks in a labeled "snack box" in my pantry, and the cookies went into the cookie jar (bonus: they stay fresher that way).

Into the jars: cereal, cut fresh vegies and fruit. Cereal goes into the pantry, vegies and fruit go into the fridge.

Labeling
The key to this system's success is the labeling. I use a Dymo LetraTag to make labels for EVERYTHING. In this case, I labeled the snack box with their snack allowance (two snacks per day, unlimited fresh fruit and vegies), and with ideas for other snacks that aren't portioned but that they can prepare themselves (pickles, string cheese, yogurt, toast with peanut butter and jelly, etc.).

dymoletratag.jpgI labeled the cereal shelf with a decent portion size: "Breakfast: 1-2 cereal cups"

I designated one of the bins in my fridge "Snack fruits and vegies."

Finally, I labeled an empty Ziploc bag carton as the holder for "used, clean empties" so we can reuse all the packaging. Most of the snacks are dry, so the bags can be used several times.

The beauty: grab-and-go convenience for me and the kids, the beginning of an education about mindful eating, and the confidence that comes from being able to help themselves.

It's great for me too -- while I'm not exactly a dieter, I do tend to eat without thinking. Having snacks portioned this way adds a level of consciousness to my between-meal grazing. And I'm saving money on my grocery bills -- snacks that used to disappear in days is lasting all week. Good all the way around!

Your comments

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Great idea! This is also a great replacement for 100 calorie snack packs, which are high priced and over-packaged. If you want to get them down to the "100 calorie portion" just reduce the portion size. For example, if your cereal is 150 calories/cup, then put 2/3 cups of cereal in the jar.

That's a good dieting trick too -- it helps to have cues when to stop. Its too easy to mindlessly dive into a big package until it is empty.

Great idea!

This is a great idea. I have a bunch of reusable fabric snack bags that I may have to use.

We put a sippy cup with milk on the lowest shelf in the fridge every night. Then when our almost-3-year-old wakes up (too early!) he can go drink his milk and play by himself. (My kids wake up hungry!). It gives us an extra 15-20 minutes of sleep.

Thank you sooo much for sharing this great idea! My kids are just old enough to open doors (to pantry/fridge) and to have things ready for them would make things so much easier (for them & me!). We re-use water-bottles with milk & juice - but we didn't even think of this!

We actually do this at our house. It started as a quick way for my kids to pack their lunches. I have a 7 and 5 year old in school. My 5 year old started K and she is fully capable of packing herself. They pack the dry goods the night before and the cold stuff in the am. When I get home from the store we put all the snacks in bags and add them to the pantry bins. We also make and freeze their pb &js or turkeys. We tried this prior to make sure they tasted good and thawed in time for lunch. It makes things very easy. BTW.... I think they should send you home from the hospital with a label maker. They help SO much!

You are so my hero...Love this hack!

Aimy -- this is worthy of full hack status! I'm going to promote this comment to a post. Such a great idea, and I'm going to implement it myself. We've talked here about variants on this (freezing sandwiches, etc.) but I've never actually gone and done it.

PS. That's Trader Joe's instant miso soup in the packets. My kids love that stuff. A little overpriced but handy.

Love! It! My kids are too young, but I hope I remember this tip when they're old enough.

Asha, I never commented before but have been a faithful reader for... oh, you know, LONG. I felt like saying thanks for your great work and all those wonderful tips - they sure help me to stay sane! BTW, I also love you on Momversation.

I read this hack in the morning, told my husband about it during breakfast and am now packing my snacks up. With four kids, this is sure to be a life saver. Thanks!!

Asha,
While you're reusing the Ziplocs a few times, maybe you could also invest in -- or make -- some reusable snack bags. I have a hodgepodge of snack bags I bought on etsy as well as snack bags a friend of mine made from my worse-for-wear grocery store totes, and I LOVE them. You could also use that as a color-coding system -- one color/style for pretzels, one for crackers, etc.

finally found at Ikea what I've been longing for: a set of containers ($5) which includes several really small ones. Perfect for these snack-size portions, they go in my daughter's lunchbox every day; no bags thrown away.

Perfect timing! I've gotten up six times in the past hour to give my kids snacks/drinks. I will definitely do this in my house. Kids are 5 and 3. They can handle grabbing a snack by themselves.

One suggestion I've done for a while is put the kiddie plates/bowls/cups/utensils in a low cabinet. That way the kids set their own plates for meal times. I think it encourages independence.

They sound perfect for kids and perfect for portion control as well as storage. I'm not a fan of them being used as dieting tricks though, as has been suggested in several comments.

this is a goo d idea, but for those of us who are GREEN parents, it's a bit tricky. I want to get better at making less waste.

Yes!

@Carma:
Get some reusable containers from Ikea, they're fairly cheap and come in many sizes

Genius. We're in.

Thank you so much, Claudia. What a kind thing to say.

Wow, the response to this hack has been incredible! I'm working on a followup that not only describes how it's gone here at home since I started, but your very smart additions here in the comments. Thank you all. Let's keep talking!

I like to make a snack bin in the pantry. I put the right portions in snack bags and let them pick whatever they want.. It lets them decide what they want and me decide how much they get. :)
-Sylvia

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