A 2-hour study hall followed by hours of baseball practice or dance class, all after a long day of school? How is your kid supposed to survive from lunch until dinner?
The key is to pack the right snacks to get them through. They provide vital nutrition and energy for your kids, especially when there’s a long, busy gap between meals.
But the quality of the fuel matters. “You want to make sure those are nutritious snacks,” says registered dietitian Liz Weiss.
You may feel like you have little control over what your kids eat, especially when they’re out of sight. But dietitians say you can help your kids avoid sugary, fatty junk food by packing healthy, delicious snacks that will keep their growing bodies and brains going.
Sports vs. Non-Sports Activities
Whether your child is going to the library or sports practice, a healthy after-school snack can help get him through the afternoon, dietitians say. The difference is that the child who’s exercising for hours is going to need more calories than the one who is not.
Jim White, a registered dietitian who works with kids and athletes, says he recommends students who are in sports to have a snack around 10 a.m. and another one around 3 or 3:30 p.m.
“It’s important to have a more substantial snack an hour before substantial exercise,” he says.
This could be a peanut butter or turkey sandwich with a piece of fruit, which are good sources of protein and carbohydrates. If it’s 30 minutes before exercise, White recommends a smaller snack such as yogurt, or fruit like a banana to make it easier on the stomach.
Think Beyond the Bag
People tend to think of snacks as chips, crackers, or pre-packaged products you see in vending machines. But these foods won’t fuel kids for very long, especially when they are physically active. Dietitian Katie Ferraro says snacks can be a mini-meal, such as half a sandwich or a small bowl of cereal, to give kids the energy they need.
She suggests a whole-wheat bagel with hummus and sliced cucumbers, which provide protein and healthy fats. This keeps your child feeling fuller for longer than a plain white bagel would.
Peanut butter and banana on whole grain bread, or a nut butter sandwich with apple slices can also help kids feel full, while giving them protein and complex carbohydrates.
More Veggies and Fruits
Fruits and vegetables are important sources of the nutrients that all kids need, so they can be a key part of balanced snacks. The trick is to make them more accessible.
“For my kids, I tried to make fruit easy,” says Weiss, a mother of two. “It’s nature’s best fast food. I’d pack something like a clementine or a mandarin orange that’s easy to peel.”
She also suggests packing strawberries, berries, grapes left on the stems, and sliced apples with a squeeze of lemon juice, since they tend to turn brown.
Since no one wants to eat a warm piece of fruit that’s been sitting around in a locker all day, add an ice pack to the lunch box so the fruit holds up, Weiss says.
You can also dress up vegetables. Instead of just plain baby carrots, add a single-serving container of hummus, which adds protein and more fiber, or guacamole. A dip makes vegetables more enticing and filling, she says.
“The veggies I’d pack are baby carrots, celery sticks, bell pepper strips, anything that’s firm enough, it could be perfect for dip. Snap peas are firm, they hold up, and they taste great,” Weiss says.
What your kids drink makes a difference in how much energy they have for a packed schedule, too. Water and low-fat milk should be what they sip most of the time for meals and snacks.
How much should they drink every day? It varies, depending on age, gender, and how active they are. But overall, kids and teens should have at least six to eight cups per day -- and more when it’s hot outside. Make sure kids have reusable bottles they can fill throughout the day.
What about other drinks at snack time -- sodas, juices, or coffee? If your kids have these, they should be occasional treats, not a regular thing. To mix up their drink routine, try serving 100% fruit juice or a smoothie made without added sugars every once in a while.
And Weiss recommends no sports drinks at all. “It’s just basically sugar water,” she says.