It's hours until dinner and your kids are clamoring for a snack. Why dole out chips or cookies when there's a whole world of simple, healthy snacks for kids out there?
Healthy Snacks at Home
"It's important to treat snacks as opportunities for busy bodies to refuel," says Bridget Swinney, MS, RD, author of Baby Bites, and mother of two.
Think of snacks as mini-meals and offer the same foods you'd feature at mealtimes. You probably wouldn't dream of serving your child sodium-laden snack crackers and a sugary beverage for dinner, so don't give it to him or her as a snack, either. Instead, get inspired with these simple ideas:
- Mini pizza: Help them put together a pizza using one-half of a whole-grain English muffin or small whole-wheat pita bread; ketchup or marinara sauce; and grated cheese. Use olives, shredded carrots, and other vegetables for facial features.
- Snack mix: Set out small bowls of plain Cheerios, dried fruit, and chopped nuts, sunflower seeds, or roasted soy nuts. Give kids a bowl or a small plastic container and let them mix it up. Throw in a few mini chocolate chips for a sweet treat. This trail mix is also good mixed with low-fat vanilla yogurt.
- Fruit smoothies: Preschoolers love to experiment, so let them combine different frozen or fresh berries and other fruit with plain, low-fat yogurt or reduced-fat milk. Combine in blender 1/4 cup each: yogurt or milk and chopped fruit or berries; and 1 ice cube. Add milk or yogurt to achieve desired consistency.
- Pop a single-serve bag of low-fat microwave popcorn. Sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese.
Healthy Snacks for on-the-go Kids
When everyone's in a hurry, grab an insulated lunch box or bag and you can send kids out with simple, healthy snacks that combine protein and complex carbohydrates:
- A small can of low-sodium vegetable juice and string cheese
- A small whole-grain muffin (or 2 mini muffins) and a carton of low-fat milk
- 1/4 or one-half sandwich, such as peanut butter, sunflower butter, or almond butter, and a carton of 100% orange juice
- Yogurt or peanut butter in a tube and whole-grain crackers
- Sliced hard cooked egg and whole-grain crackers
- 1/2 slice thin-crust pizza and carton of 100% orange juice
- Mini bagels spread with hummus and small can of pineapple juice
- Whole-grain pretzels and carton of low-fat chocolate milk
Sweet and Healthy Snacks
If your kids are sweet on sweets, you can cater to their cravings and still keep snacks healthy and simple:
- Spread whole-wheat graham crackers with reduced-fat whipped cream cheese; top with sliced strawberries or strawberry jam made without sugar.
- Toast half of a whole-wheat English muffin. Spread with nut butter or sunflower seed butter and drizzle with honey.
- Dried whole apricots or banana slices dipped in melted dark chocolate.
- Plain low-fat yogurt topped with chopped walnuts and molasses.
- Pudding made with low-fat milk topped with fresh or frozen berries.
It's Toddler Time: Snack Facts
Though parents sometimes perceive snacks as a negative, they're especially important when it comes to young children, Swinney says. Here are some snack facts relating to those tiny tummies:
- Most children, particularly toddlers and preschoolers, should snack, says Swinney, because little bellies can't hold a lot of food, so young children may become hungry between meals.
- Tiny tykes have limited attention spans, so they're often more interested in playing than eating at mealtime. Simple, healthy snacks help fill in the gaps.
- A Journal of the American Dietetic Association study found that 80% of toddlers ages 12 to 24 months ate an afternoon snack. Cookies, crackers, chips, and fruit drinks topped the list of toddler favorites. Research also shows snacks comprise about 25% of the calories kids of all ages consume -- nearly a meal's worth. That raises a red flag with nutrition experts.
"It's easier for your child to take in more calories than he needs through snacks," Swinney tells WebMD. For instance, a 2-ounce box of animal crackers and four ounces of a fruit beverage supply just over 300 calories, about one-third of what a 2-year-old needs on a daily basis, and more than 20% of an active 5-year-old's daily calorie quota.
So what can you do to keep your little snackers healthy and happy? Dip!
Healthy Snacks for Little Dippers
Young children love to dip and parents want them to snack on healthy foods. That's where these great ideas come in. They may be a bit messy, but they're worth it, nutrition-wise! Try:
- Sliced apple, peach, pear, bananas, or cooked sweet potato, dipped in low-fat vanilla yogurt
- Baby carrots, celery sticks, sliced red bell peppers, cherry tomatoes (cut in half) or any other cooked or raw vegetable paired with low-fat Ranch dressing; hummus; nut butter; or sunflower seed butter
Healthy Snacks: Pencil Them In
Whether your kids are tots or teens, you should probably schedule in healthy snacks, even if loosely. That's because eating at regular intervals discourages kids from grazing, characterized as near-continuous nibbling or drinking, or both, throughout the day.
How much should you serve at snack time? Enough to take the edge off a child's hunger. Start small; you can always serve more.
And don't worry if your child is not particularly hungry at the next meal, Swinney says. Left to their own devices, kids typically curb food consumption accordingly.