Giving your kid a drink, snack or small bag of fast food on the way home from day care might distract them during a busy commute, but it’s not doing their daily diet any favors, a new study warns.

The hour after kids are picked up from day care stands out as a high-calorie, less healthy part of their overall diet, researchers report April 27 in the journal Children’s Health Care.

Chlidren ages 3 to 5 consume about 20% of their day’s entire calorie intake in the hour after leaving day care, researchers found. That’s 290 calories, on average, out of nearly 1,500 calories eaten daily, an amount on the high end of recommended daily limits.

What’s more, that hour’s snacks and drinks account for more than one-fifth of the day’s added sugars and around one-third of a kid’s daily sweet and salty snack foods.

“Every parent knows how busy that time of day can feel. Parents can feel stressed, the kids may be cranky, hungry or tired. There’s nothing wrong with treats once in a while,” said senior researcher Dr. Kristen Copeland, a pediatrician with Cincinnati Children’s Hospital. “But that car ride home also can be an opportunity to instill healthier habits instead of less healthy ones.”

For the new study, researchers analyzed daily food journals kept by more than 300 families of children attending 30 child care centers that participated in a preschool eating and activity study between 2009 and 2011.

Copeland recommends that parents try stocking their car with veggie sticks, cheese, fruit slices and low-sugar drinks like water or milk. That few minutes of preparation can help them avoid high-calorie fast food and sugar-loaded packaged snacks.

“Children of preschool age are in a highly habit-forming time of their lives. They thrive on routine,” Copeland said in a hospital news release. “Children often look forward to the car ride home, which makes that time an opportunity to start a healthy snacking habit that could last a lifetime.”

More information

The Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health has more on healthy eating for kids.

SOURCE: Cincinnati Children’s Hospital, news release, April 27, 2024