When Are Children Old Enough to Eat Popcorn?

By Kathryn Walsh
At least it's healthier than chips.
At least it's healthier than chips.

A child's size bucket of popcorn comes with adult price tags at the movies, so being able to shake your head and say, "Popcorn isn't safe for kids" is actually helpful. As long as your toddler or preschooler under age 4 doesn't know what she's missing, you can keep her away from the fluffy stuff indefinitely. Once she's old enough and reacts to family members chowing down, she'll give you her, "I want some!" pout, introduce her to popcorn carefully, as long as she is at least 4 years old.

When to Introduce Popcorn

Her fingers are too small to keep on the rings she snags from your jewelry box, and her little feet don't yet fill out the killer cowboy boots you found on clearance. Her trachea, or windpipe, is undersized too; according to the New York State Department of Health, a young child's windpipe has the diameter of a straw. If she gets a single piece of popcorn stuck in the back of her mouth, it could block the airway and cause her to choke. That's why experts recommend holding off on giving popcorn to toddlers, but as she gets older and bigger and develops more control over her body, she should be able to eat popcorn safely. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that a child not be allowed to eat popcorn until she's at least 4 years old, because choking incidents from popcorn are very common -- and very serious.

Popcorn Safety

She's just turned 4, and suddenly she's curious to try the yummy-looking popcorn she caught you snacking on. (And if you gave yourself permission to eat a whole bag of the stuff because it's "mostly air," you're not alone.) Letting her try some popcorn is fine as long as you're right there to watch her. Before handing the bowl over, shake it so any unpopped kernels will fall to the bottom, then scoop the popped corn into another bowl so you can toss out all the kernels you don't want your kiddo to eat. When it's ready, put the bowl behind you for a minute your child can focus on you instead of staring mooneyed at the snack. With her attention, say, "Popcorn is yummy, but we need to be careful when eating it. Only eat one piece at a time, and chew it all the way before swallowing."

Popcorn Alternatives

If your kiddo is happy enough to chow down on her fruit snacks and cheese sticks at snack time, then don't rock the boat, but if you have a toddler who can throw a level-five meltdown when she's told "no," look for a popcorn alternative to serve her when other family members are enjoying a bowl of the buttery good stuff. Pick up a bag of puffed corn or rice snacks. These treats have a similar taste and look to popcorn, but since they're made of either rice or processed corn, they contain no potentially dangerous corn kernels or hulls that your kiddo can choke on. Test one (or a handful) before serving them to be sure the treats you bought are soft enough to practically melt in her mouth.

Dressing Up Popcorn

You've created a popcorn-loving monster and she's hungry for more. One way to distract her from clamoring for an expensive tub of popcorn at the movies is to make the stuff you serve at home tastier. After you've popped plain corn, spritz it with olive oil or mix in a teaspoon of melted butter so toppings will stick. Toss a spoonful of grated parmesan in for cheesy corn, or sprinkle a few pinches of powdered sugar or brown sugar over buttered popcorn. A kiddo who has an adventurous palate might like her popcorn seasoned with her favorite spices or even minced garlic, or you can take a tip from KidsHealth.org and make taco-flavored corn by sprinkling a few pinches each of cumin, garlic powder and onion powder over oiled popcorn. Bake the popcorn, spread out on a cookie sheet, in a warm oven until you can smell the seasonings in the air.

About the Author

Cooking, travel and parenting are three of Kathryn Walsh's passions. She makes chicken nuggets during days nannying, whips up vegetarian feasts at night and road trips on weekends. Her work has appeared to The Syracuse Post-Standard and insider magazine. Walsh received a master's degree in journalism from Syracuse University.