Finding a healthy snack for kids may seem like finding a needle in a sugarcoated haystack, but experts say a few simple tricks can help parents sort through the hype.
Most snack foods marketed for kids tend to be loaded with fat and sugar, but by reading food labels before bringing potential snacks home, parents can help their kids make smart snacking decisions.
Experts say snack time actually can be an opportunity to supplement children's diets as well as calm hunger pangs between meals.
"It's a good time to give them what they are missing throughout the day, not to be repetitive," says Miami-based registered dietitian Claudia Gonzalez. "For example, if you had cereal and milk for breakfast, what's missing is fruit, so you can use snack time to complement the other meals."
But if fruit's a hard sell in your household, there are many other ways to find healthy snacks for kids.
Finding Hidden Fats
Snack foods are the main source of a type of artery-clogging fat known as trans fat in children's and adults' diets. Trans fats are known to increase the "bad" LDL cholesterol, which can increase the risk of heart disease and stroke.
The FDA recently announced that it will require food manufacturers to list the amount of trans fats that their products contain. Those new labeling requirements won't go into effect until 2006, but meanwhile, there are other ways to spot them on a food label.
"Trans fats are industrial fats that keep products shelf stable, so all your crackers, all your cookies, all your snack chips, all your little snack cakes, they're all going to have fat in them, and that fat is usually going to be a trans fat," says Rachel Brandeis, RD, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association.
"The only way for parents to know that it's trans fat is to look on the ingredients and see the words 'partially hydrogenated oil.'"
Brandeis says the higher the words "partially hydrogenated oil" are on the ingredient list, the more of it is in the food because manufacturers are required to list the ingredients by weight.
Experts say there is no "safe limit" for trans fats, and people should eat as little of them as possible. In addition, the American Heart Association recommends limiting the combined amount of trans and saturated fats to less than 10% of total calories consumed daily.
Decoding 'Fruit' Snacks
Many snack foods marketed for kids claim to be "made with real fruit" or to provide other nutritional benefits associated with fresh fruits. But many of them are made with little more than sugary corn syrup with a dash of fruit juice and have little nutritional value.
Brandeis says the FDA requires that all food labels list the percentage of the recommended daily allowance (RDA) of vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium, and iron the food provides. By reading that part of the label, parents can get a good idea of how closely a "fruit snack" resembles the real thing.
"Look on the food labels and see if they are getting any vitamins or minerals from that product," Brandeis tells WebMD. "If they see a bunch of zeros or really low numbers you can probably think to yourself that it's not as healthy as it seems."
Brandeis says foods with more than 10% RDA of those vitamins or minerals are considered a good source of these nutrients and those with greater than 20% are excellent sources.
Mixing Makes Better Snacks
Experts say one of the most common problems in children's snacking habits is eating too much of one kind of food, like crackers or cookies.
Rather than offer just one food item as a snack, Brandeis says the goal in healthy snacking should be to combine at least two food groups, like a protein and a carbohydrate. Not only will a combo snack pack more nutrients into kids' diets, but it will be more filling and tide them over until their next meal, which is the whole point of snacking anyway.
Examples of kid-friendly healthy snack combinations include:
- Sandwiches made with meats or peanut butter
- Crunchy vegetable sticks with low-fat ranch dip
- Hummus and pita wedges
- Yogurt parfait with low-fat yogurt and fruit
- Slice of leftover pizza
- Fruit smoothie made in a blender with fresh fruit, yogurt, and juice
- Sliced tomato with mozzarella cheese
- Melon cubes with a slice of turkey
- Hard-boiled egg with a slice of whole-wheat bread
- Low-fat yogurt with berries and almonds
- "Light" microwave popcorn with grated parmesan cheese
- Bowl of cereal with milk
- Banana slices with peanut butter
Brandeis says simply adding 1% or skim milk to cereal and cookies or peanut butter to snack items like crackers and fruit is an easy way to add calcium and protein to an otherwise carbohydrate-only snack.
Parents should also choose high-fiber carbohydrates such as whole-grain breads, woven-wheat crackers, and cereals over refined carbohydrates such as white bread and saltines.
Pay Attention to Portion Size
Another common snacking pitfall is not paying attention to portion size. Instead of handing over a bag of chips, parents should pre-portion their child's snacks and put servings of foods that come in large containers in small plastic bags to grab on the go or put a snack-sized serving on a plate.
Gonzalez says carbohydrates are not necessarily evil, but parents need to limit the amount of refined carbohydrates found in candy, cookies, white rice, and pastas that their children eat.
"Everything can be part of their diet as long as you control it," Gonzalez tells WebMD. "What happens is that we tend to forget about the other food groups, and then we put everything on carbohydrates."