"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 snacks.
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 eating
- 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)
- graham crackers
- 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 home.
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
- whole-grain pretzels
- 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
- trail mix
- air-popped popcorn
- hard-boiled eggs
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.
Reviewed by: Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: March 2012
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