"Don't eat between meals." "Don't touch that cookie -- you'll spoil your dinner!" "Snacking will make you gain weight."
Chances are, you've said something similar to your children - or maybe heard it from your own mom.
But experts say that snacking on the right foods is not harmful. In fact, it can have health benefits for kids of all ages.
"Snacking is not a bad thing -- in fact, it's a good thing -- and it can actually help keep kids from overeating at mealtime," says Netty Levine, RD, CDE, a dietitian and diabetes educator at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Studies show that snacking during the school day improves both mood and motivation, and may impact concentration. Snacks may help children maintain performance during times of high mental demand, like when taking an exam or making a class presentation.
But even while we're bombarded with choices by the snack food industry, it's not always easy to find healthy snacks -- much less get your kids to eat them. To help parents make snack time both healthy and happy for children, experts who spoke to WebMD offered six simple guidelines.
1. Relax the Food Ties That Bind
While you may have strict nutritional guidelines for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, experts say snacks are the place to give children some wiggle room.
"I'm a firm believer that you can't be ultra strict when choosing snack foods, or your child will just go out and eat the really bad stuff on their own -- and probably a lot more of it," says Levine.
Give them a little of what they like (be it potato chips or candy bars) a couple of days a week, and you'll have better luck getting them to eat healthy snacks the rest of the time, she says.
2. Choose the Lesser of the Evils
When it comes to ingredients like sugar and saturated fat, you might think most commercial snack foods are pretty similar, give or take a gram. But look a little harder at the label and you may find important differences.
"If, for example, you have two items that are equal in sugar, fat, and calories, sometimes you'll find that one contains vitamins, minerals, and fiber while the other doesn't," says Marjorie Livingston, a professor of nutrition at the Culinary Institute of America in New York.
Opting for the more nutrient-dense snack will help ensure it has some redeeming value, even if some of the other ingredients are not top nutritional choices.
In addition, Livingston says, keep an eye on the sugar content. Some snacks, even seemingly healthy ones like flavored yogurt, are way over the top when it comes to added sweeteners.
"The American Medical Association says that when our sugar intake exceeds 25% of our total caloric intake, it impacts us nutritionally," says Livingston. "But the World Health Organization sets the threshold at 10% -- so sugar is an issue to consider."
A quick way to tell if a snack has gone over the line: It's over 250 calories a serving, it's probably got too many empty calories, Livingston says.
3. Portion, Portion, Portion
While it's OK to give kids some leeway on choosing what snacks to have, experts say it's still vital to pay attention to portion size.
"Parents should not ignore portion control boundaries just because it's a snack," says New York nutritionist Joy Bauer, MS, RD, CDN, director of JoyBauerNutrition.com. "Yes, you can relax a little in terms of allowing certain foods, but you should pay attention to how much of these foods your child is eating,"
"If you see the word 'hydrogenated,' it means it has some trans fat, so avoid that snack," Bauer tells WebMD.
If your child is battling a weight problem, paying attention to portion size and total calories is vital, Bauer says. But, she says, don't deny the child the opportunity to snack.
"You don't want to exclude an overweight child from having snacks, but you must remember to include their snack calories as part of their daily caloric intake -- and teach your child how to do that as well," says Bauer.
To control portions and help kids learn the value of doing so, Levine suggests keeping some zip-top bags on hand, and letting kids prepare their own portion-controlled servings.
"You can use their age as a guideline - for example, a 7-year-old child can be allowed seven M&M candies, or seven potato chips, seven animal crackers," says Levine. "It teaches them counting skills as well as portion control."
4. Make It Easy to Eat Well
Having trouble getting your kids to eat healthy snacks -- like fruits, vegetables, and whole-grain items? Make these foods easy to munch, and they will eat more of them, Livingston says.
"No matter what food it is you're trying to get your child to eat, if you make it accessible, if it's easy to eat, if it's there waiting for them in the fridge or on the counter, you will increase the likelihood that they will eat it," says Livingston.
But cutting up fruits and veggies into bite-sized pieces isn't quite enough. Snacks should also be packaged in a way that makes it easy for kids to "grab and go," Livingston says.
"The key is not only making snacks easy to eat, but also easy to share," Levine adds. "Kids love to share their snacks at school and if you help them do that, they are more likely to eat what you prepare, rather then trade up for something from a vending machine."
Snacks that are easy to portion out into plastic bags and take along include fruit and veggie chunks; a mixture of dry cereal and nuts, raisins, and a few chocolate chips; "sandwiches" of whole-wheat crackers with peanut or almond butter; fruit roll-ups cut into bite-sized portions; half an energy bar cut into bite-sized pieces; popcorn or cookies measured out into 100-calorie portions.
5. Make It Yourself
Some pre-packaged snacks are quite healthy. But when you make a healthy snack from scratch, it's easy to "hide" the healthy ingredients, and give your kids the taste they want along with the nutrition you want them to have, Livingston says.
"For example, you can substitute 1/4 of the flour in any cookie or cake recipe with that same amount in ground flaxseed," Livingston says. "Your kids won't taste the difference, and you'll be giving them added fiber and important omega-3s."
Another of Livingston's tricks: Substitute fruit puree for one-half to three-quarters of the fat in any cake, cookie, or muffin recipe. You can also cut sugar by 1/3 to 1/2 without stirring up much of a fuss.
To make frozen fruit bars with more nutrients and less sugar, she says, puree berries, melon, or even bananas, and blend with a few tablespoons of fruit juice. Freeze the mixture in a paper cup or a plastic pop mold.
"By using the whole fruit puree instead of fruit juice, you get all the nutrients in a piece of fruit, and not all the sugar found in a juice," says Livingston.
6. Think Outside the Cookie Jar!
If you hear the word "snack" and automatically think cookies, chips, or pie, says nutritionist Samantha Heller, MS, RD, think again.
"A snack food doesn't have to be a sweet," says Heller, a senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Medical Center. "It doesn't even have to be a traditional snack food. Almost anything a kid likes to eat can be turned into a snack if you watch portion sizes."
Her suggestions include cold pizza (made with veggies and low-fat cheese); whole-wheat tortillas with spinach or other vegetable; hummus on pita bread; salsa & baked chips; dill/garlic low-fat yogurt dip and vegetables; mini oatmeal muffins with raisins; a whole-grain waffle with jam or fresh fruit.
"It's important to get kids away from the taste of sugar, and incorporating other types of snacks into their diet is one way to do that," says Heller.
Levine reminds us not to forget low-fat and no-fat dairy foods as a great snack alternative.
She suggests "low-fat yogurt with your own fruit puree to reduce sugar, string cheese, low-fat milk with cocoa, even low-fat frozen yogurt or ice cream is OK if you watch the portion size."
Whether you're preparing snacks for your kids to take to school, or treats to keep them satisfied in the afternoon or evening, Bauer offers these fun, kid-loving healthy snack recipes. WebMD Weight Loss Clinic members -- journal one serving of snacks as 'light dessert.'
Twist and Shout Trail Mix
This is a great project for younger kids (aged 2-6). Not only do they feel proud about preparing their own snack, they also get the chance to practice their math skills
1/2 to 1 cup Multi-Grain Cheerios
1/2 to 1 Cup mini pretzels (preferable oat bran)
1/2 cup of raisins
1/2 to 1 cup Goldfish crackers
1/2 cup milk chocolate chips
1/2 to 1 cup of peanuts
- Lay out a snack-sized plastic bag for each child.
- Have each child count out 10 Cheerios and place into a bag
- Next, have each child count out 9 pretzels and place into the bag
- Next, have each child count out 8 raisins and place into the bag
- Next, have each child count out 7 raisins and place into the bag
- Next, have each child count out 6 chocolate chips and place into their bag
- Next, have each child count out 5 peanuts and place into their bag
- Tightly close the plastic bags, and have all children stand up and do the twist. The kids will have fun shaking up the contents of their trail mix. (You might even want to play the song Twist and Shout).
1 serving = 10 Cheerios, 9 mini pretzels, 8 raisins, 7 Goldfish, 6 chocolate chips
Per serving: 105 calories, 3 g protein, 14 g carbohydrates, 4.6 g fat, 1 g saturated fat, 0 g cholesterol, 150 mg sodium, 1 g fiber.
Chocolate Pudding Sprinkle Cones
Instead of ice cream, these colorful cones hold creamy pudding that's topped with rainbow sprinkles for a festive touch. They also make a good party treat. They're best made ahead of time and refrigerated for about four hours before serving.
6 ice cream wafer cones, flat bottom, multi-color pack (green, pink, and beige)
1 3.9 ounce package Jell-O brand instant chocolate pudding mix (you can also use the sugar-free variety)
2 cups skim milk, cold
- In a large bowl, prepare chocolate pudding mix according to package directions (adding cold skim milk, whip approximately 5-10 minutes until pudding becomes thick).
- Pour chocolate pudding evenly into six flat-bottom cones.
- Sprinkle 1 teaspoon multi-colored sprinkles on top of each pudding cone.
- Place in refrigerator for at least one hour. Be sure to set the cones on a stable tray or tight-fitting container to keep them from falling over.
Yield: 6 cones
Frozen Pudding Lollipops
Make these at least four hours before you plan to serve them so they have time to freeze. You can even assemble them a day or two ahead and store them, well wrapped, in the freezer.
1 package fat-free, sugar-free chocolate instant pudding mix
2 1/2 cups skim milk
2 tablespoons light chocolate syrup
1/2 cup colored sprinkles or small candies
10 wooden Popsicle sticks
10 small paper cups
- In a large bowl, blend pudding packet, milk, and chocolate syrup until thickened and thoroughly mixed.
- Place 10 paper cups on a baking sheet and spoon 1 teaspoon of sprinkles or candies into the bottom of each. Pour pudding mixture evenly into each cup. Cover with aluminum foil.
- Make a small hole in foil and insert a wooden stick into each pudding-filled cup.
- Place baking sheet in freezer for at least 4 hours (or until pudding pops are frozen). Remove foil and tear away paper cups to serve.
Yield: 10 pops