"Don't eat that, you'll spoil your appetite." If only you had a dollar for every
time you heard that growing up.
But if the right foods are offered at the right times, snacks can play an important
role in managing kids' hunger and boosting nutrition. A well-timed snack can even
out spikes in hunger and provide a much-needed energy boost between meals.
Snacks can keep younger children from getting so hungry that they become cranky,
and they can keep older kids from overeating at larger meals. And for picky eaters
of all ages, snacks can be added insurance that they're getting the necessary nutrients.
This doesn't mean that giving your child a cupcake half an hour before dinner is
suddenly a good idea. The best snacks are nutritious — low in sugar, fat, and
salt. Fresh fruit and vegetables and foods that contain whole grains and protein are
also good choices.
But it's not just about what you offer as a snack — it's how much you serve
and when. Pay attention to portion sizes and timing of snacks so they don't interfere
with a child's appetite for the next scheduled meal.
Kids who are allowed to graze all day long often have a hard time figuring out
when they're truly hungry — one key to maintaining a healthy weight in childhood
and later in life. A structured meal and snack schedule is one solution. You offer
the meals and snacks at the same times each day, and your kids can decide what they
want to eat and how much.
Snacks and Toddlers
Toddlers may not
eat much at a sitting and they often get hungry before the next meal. At this age,
kids may need to eat five or six times a day — three meals and two to three
There are two common "snack pitfalls" to avoid with toddlers because once done,
they can be hard to undo:
using sweets to reward good behavior, which sends the message that desserts are
somehow better or more valuable than other foods, and can start a pattern of unhealthy
pacifying kids with a snack just before a meal, which can decrease their hunger
and make them less willing to try new foods at the table
Scheduled snacks served at the same times every day give kids a sense of control
and also establish that snacks are available only at certain times. Offer two or three
nutritious options and let kids choose. Try:
low-sugar, whole-grain breakfast cereals
cut-up fruit (if pieces are small and soft enough to avoid choking)
cheese slices cut into fun shapes
Snacks and Preschoolers
Control is still a key issue at this age, so preschoolers
also might enjoy the chance to choose their snack from the options you present. The
desire for sweets can be quite strong at this age, but you can avoid the struggles.
Don't offer candy and cookies at snack time. You can decide not to stock them at all
or, if you do, to keep them out of sight.
Preschoolers are just learning to label their feelings, and they'll often say "I'm
hungry." But they could just be bored, tired, or in need of some attention. Figure
out what your child really needs. It may be that some playtime with you or a change
of scenery could end the cries of "I'm hungry." Also, when kids do need a snack, make
sure it's eaten at the table and not in front of the TV.
Healthy snacks for preschoolers include:
cut-up fruit or applesauce
sliced or chopped veggies
whole-grain crackers topped with cheese
Snacks and School-Age Kids
With homework, activities, lessons, and sports, school-age kids are busier, and
probably more independent, than ever. Some may still need three meals and two snacks
per day — usually one mid-morning and one after school.
But the morning snack could become unnecessary depending on lunchtime at school
and as kids get older. Talk with your kids to find out.
Unless you have an especially early dinner time, most kids still need an after-school
snack to help them stay focused on homework and other after-school commitments.
Try to pack healthy snacks for after-school activities of kids who aren't coming right
Kids who come straight home after school probably can start fixing their own snacks
(with permission, of course). Leave things in the fridge that can be grabbed quickly
— veggie sticks and dips, yogurt and berries. If you're serving fruit or a salad
with dinner, consider letting kids eat that early to take the edge off.
School-age kids are capable of understanding why it's important to eat healthy,
but more than ever they look to the people they love as role models. Make healthy
snacking a family affair and your kids will take it to heart.
Here are some snacks that school-age kids might enjoy:
low-sugar, whole-grain breakfast cereal with low-fat milk
low-fat string cheese
fruit smoothies made with low-fat milk or yogurt
nuts and raisins
whole-wheat pita slices, cut-up veggies, and hummus
fruit slices dipped in low-fat flavored yogurt
Snacks and Teens
Teens might still need a snack or two during the day, but what they eat may seem
out of your control. Your teen might have sports, a job, an ever-expanding social
calendar, money to spend, and car keys. With this much independence, you can't police
what your teen eats, but you can encourage healthy snacking by keeping nutritious
foods at home that your teen can take along.
Healthy snacks for teens include:
veggie sticks with low-fat ranch dip or hummus
low-fat granola bars
fresh or dried fruit
Snacking well can be a challenge, especially once kids are old enough to make independent
food choices. But if you've set the stage right from the start — offering mostly
nutritious choices at home and encouraging good alternatives when away — they're
more likely to reach for something healthy when a hunger pang strikes.