"Don't eat that, you'll spoil your appetite."
If only you had a dollar for every time you heard that growing
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
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
- 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
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
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
- 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.
Mary L. Gavin, MD
Date reviewed: February 2009
Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice,
diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor.
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