Treats vs. Snacks for Kids: How to distinguish between them, and how to manage treats

Treats vs. Snacks for Kids: How to distinguish between them, and how to manage treats. 

By: Sarah Remmer, Registered Dietician

Have you ever met a kid who doesn’t LOVE snacks? Nope. Snacks are a definitely preferred over meals in my household – hands down. They're fun, tasty, and you can usually eat them with your fingers! And snack foods are often kid-favourites too. But sometimes the reason your kid may be all about the snacks is because their snack is actually a treat! You heard me – you might be mistaking a treat for a snack. Don’t worry – it happens to the best of us. And I’m here to help you distinguish between the two and give you some treat management tips. 


 What is a snack? 

A snack is basically a mini-meal made of whole foods like fruit, veggies, nuts, seeds, whole grains, dairy foods…you get the picture. Whole foods are packed full of essential nutrients that our little ones need for proper growth and development. Whole foods help kids get the energy they need to run at recess time, and the ability to concentrate in the classroom! And because kids have little tummies, what we offer them between meals needs to pack a nutrition punch. So, choosing nutrient-dense snack foods is important! I suggest always including some protein and a fruit or vegetable and or a whole grain food. Here are some nutritious snack examples:


 What is a treat? 

A treat, on the other hand, tends to be less nutritious and will generally contain more calories, sugar and , fat. Treats can be homemade (less processed) or store-bought (more processed), but regardless, they tend to be nutrient-poor and sugar/calorie-rich. Here’s where this gets tricky though… often treats are disguised as snacks. Especially down the kids aisle at the grocery store. Think sugary granola bars, fruit gummies and fruit cups with added sugar. 

Although treats are fun to offer occasionally (for those two and over), it’s important for them not to be mistaken as a snack.  This is because, as mentioned above, kids have small tummies but big energy and nutrition needs. Between meal eating times (snacks), need to consist of nutritious foods, not treats. Treat foods offered at various times, even once a day? Not a problem. 


 Snacks versus treats


  • Apple dipped in peanut butter
  • Granola bars that contain whole food ingredients like nuts, seeds, oats and fruit, with minimal added sugar (such asReal Food Bars by Made with Local). 
  • Carrots + cucumber + hummus
  • Cheese + crackers
  • Avocado toast
  • Banana + almond butter
  • Nut + dried fruit trail mix
  • Homemade whole grain muffins
  • Yogurt parfait
  • Nut + seed bars



  • Ice cream
  • Chips, tortillas, pretzels
  • Granola bars that are dipped in chocolate and high in sugar 
  • Cereal bars
  • Cookies
  • Cake
  • Chocolate bars
  • Candy (gummies, licorice, etc.)
  • Soft drinks
  • Sweet milkshakes

Managing Treats

Chocolate is my weakness. But I allow myself to have what I love because having a healthy relationship with food means enjoying all the foods I love and finding a balance. I want this for my kids too!  I am still in control of the food offered at meals and snacks, but I know that it can be tricky when it comes to treats. How often to serve them? When to serve them? How much to serve?! You want your kids to learn to enjoy them in moderation, but not over-indulge. Part of teaching your kids to be “competent eaters” is allowing them to explore new foods (even treats!). Here are my top tips when it comes to managing treats. 

  1. Keep it random. Kids are smart. If you start offering dessert after supper routinely, they will come to expect dessert every night. Set a number that sounds right to you. In my household we have dessert or treats three to four times a week either as part of a snack, after a meal, or (gasp) with a meal!
  2. Try not to be restrictive. Avoiding treats completely will not work. In fact, it will likely backfire big-time. Kids who feel like they don’t have access to treats often feel the need to “save up” or over-consume when given the opportunity elsewhere. Instead of saying “no” try saying “yes”, but in a structured way. For example, if your child requests dessert after supper say, “it’s not a dessert night tonight, but I was thinking I could make cookies tomorrow for dessert! Do you want to help me?”. This strategy is a great way to control the number of treats your child has throughout the week, and not make your kids feel as though they’re forbidden or restricted too much. It’s also great to include kids in the kitchen as a way to encourage kitchen skills and a positive relationship with food. 
  3. Don’t associate treats with behaviour. Treats should be offered regardless of behaviour and independent of whether they eat all of their meal. Rewarding your child with dessert for consuming all their veggies translates into “eating veggies must be yucky -- I was given a treat only because I ate them!”. When treats are offered as a reward it’s easy for kids to associate the food that came before asgross. My recommendation is to put all food on a level playing field. This means calling food by its real name (cookie versus treat) and not using it as a reward or punishment. If cookies are always offered for good behaviour at the grocery store, this makes cookies a much more sought-after food. By keeping food away from behaviour and offering “treats” regularly you allow them to become less desirable.

There’s no set rule on how often or how many treats should be offered for kids over the age of two. If you have toddlers under the age of two the recommendation is no added sugar. Sorry little sibs! Although all my kids had sweets on their first birthday, we generally tried to keep them sweets-free until two years old. Deciding on a number of treats per day or week is personal-- it depends on what works for you family! We stick to no more than one a day, but usually 4-5 per week.  What’s most important is keeping the conversation about food positive and offering nutrient-dense, whole foods first!