Whether your kids are starting their new school year in the classroom physically or virtually, school is back in session and they need lots of fuel to nourish their blossoming brains. Most children and teens need to eat every 3-4 hours throughout the day to fuel their active bodies and meet their caloric needs. That works out to about 3 meals with 1-2 snacks a day. Added snacks are essential especially if they are very active or going through a growth spurt. Snacks help kids stay focused and meet their nutrient needs. However, you don’t want your children grazing all day because it can disrupt their natural hunger cues and ruin their appetite for larger meals. Adding a bit of structure to snack time will help get them the energy they need and still allow them to be hungry for dinner. A good guideline is to offer snacks a few hours after a meal and 1-2 hours before the next meal.
This doesn’t mean you need to be armed in the kitchen at all times ready for when your child’s hunger strikes, but a little planning can go a long way to make sure your kids have nutrient-dense snacks on hand. Unfortunately, many grab-and-go snacks at the supermarket come with high sugar content and questionable ingredients. There are even hidden sugars in many products considered healthy such as whole-grain cereals, condiments, dried fruits, granola bars, and flavored yogurts. While it’s important not to unnecessarily restrict sweets from your children, daily snacks should be lower in sugar and higher in nutrients to be most beneficial to their growing bodies. The American Heart Association recommends kids between the ages of 2 and 18 should cap added sugar to 6 teaspoons. However, the current average consumption is more than double that recommendation! Listen, some sweets here and there are not going to hurt anybody, but long-term excessive consumption can increase your child’s risk for health conditions such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and liver problems. I’ve seen this happen more than you’d think while working as an outpatient pediatric dietitian! It’s pretty scary stuff.
Luckily there are many options out there that will satisfy your child’s hunger and make you feel great knowing they are getting all the nourishment they need without the scary ingredients.
Smart Snackin’ Tips:
- Offer snacks at predictable times, such as after school.
- To ensure your kids have an appetite for mealtimes, try to avoid offering snacks too close to a meal.
- Place produce in plain sight and easy to grab locations. Keeping fresh fruit in bowls on the kitchen table or fresh pre-cut veggies in containers at the front of the fridge allows your children to access it themselves and exercise their independence. Slicing or chopping vegetables such as broccoli florets, cucumber sticks, celery sticks, and carrots can be prepped a few days in advance.
- Shop for frozen fruit instead of fresh, to cut grocery costs. They are less expensive but just as nutritious. You can portion out the fruit in snack bags and keep on hand in the freezer to snack on alone, added to yogurt or a smoothie.
- Aim for snacks that are less than 9 grams of added sugar.
- Choose options with protein, fiber, and/or healthy fat to be more satiating and sustaining.
If you don’t have time to prep snacks at home, don’t fret. There are great options that can be store-bought and ready to eat. I have linked some below:
SKINNYDIPPED Dark Chocolate Cocoa Covered Almonds. These packs are sweet and chocolatey but only have ~2 grams of added sugars. Almonds are high in protein, vitamin E, and are a plant-based source of calcium.Quinn Snacks Non-GMO and Chocolate & Peanut butter PretzelsWith 3 grams of added sugar, these provide fat, protein, and carbs.The Good Bean Crunchy ChickpeasThese salty, crispy snacks pack 8 grams of protein per serving and have different flavors to choose from. Bare Cinnamon Banana ChipsThis snack couldn’t get any simpler, just bananas and cinnamon. The cinnamon adds a touch sweetness without the sugar but there are other flavors if cinnamon is not your kid’s thing. Bonus: each pack contains 3 grams of fiber. SkinnyPop PopcornThis pre-popped popcorn skips on the additives, but not the flavor. Made Good Granola BitesSweetened with real maple syrup and organic cane sugar for a total of 3 grams of added sugar. They contain 7 grams of protein and nutrients, like zinc, magnesium, and iron.
For those that want to make their own snack at home. Here are some snack ideas with simple ingredients that are quick to whip up or prep ahead of time.
- Roasted chickpeas. If you want these fresh instead of store-bought, they’re very easy to make and allows you to customize to the flavor. Drain and rinse a can of chickpeas. Spread them on a baking sheet lined and bake, without any oil or seasonings, for 40 minutes at 375 degrees Fahrenheit. Once they’re good and crisp, take then out of the oven and toss then with a little oil (1 Tablespoon) and seasoning. Then pop back in the oven for 5 minutes. Seasoning Ideas:Cinnamon Sugar1 Tablespoon sugar1 teaspoon cinnamon
Ranch1/2 teaspoon garlic powder1/2 teaspoon onion powder1/2 teaspoon dried dill1 teaspoon dried parsley1/4 teaspoon dried basil
Barbecue1 teaspoon garlic powder1 teaspoon onion powder1 teaspoon paprika1 teaspoon sugar1/2 teaspoon cumin1/2 teaspoon chili powder
- Peanut butter chocolate smoothie. Tastes like decadent chocolate milk but contains protein, fats, and carbohydrates to fill-up and satisfy. If your child doesn’t mind a bit of greens, you can add some spinach in here to add extra nutrition. To make, add 1 cup non-dairy milk of choice1 ripe bananaTablespoon peanut butter1 tablespoon cocoa powder, unsweetened1/8 teaspoon vanilla extract2-3 ice cubes. Place all ingredients in a blender and blend until smooth.
- Kale chips. Chockfull of nutrients and satisfy the need for a crunchy snack. 1 bunch of kale, de-stemmed and torn into ½ inch pieces. Toss the kale with 2 Tablespoons of extra-virgin olive oil, 1 Tablespoon lemon juice, and ¼ teaspoon of salt. Spread of a lined baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 12 minutes.
- Sun-dried tomato pinwheels.
Colorful, creamy, and easy to eat. Pinwheels are easy to swap up the ingredients but here is one to inspire the creativity:2 medium-sized tortillas, whole wheat¼ cup hummus, garlic-flavored works well here4 sun-dried tomatoes, rehydrated and finely chopped¼ English cucumber, cut into matchsticksA small handful of baby spinachSalt and pepper to tasteSpread hummus evenly on warmed up tortillas, distribute all ingredients evenly over the hummusFirmly roll the tortilla from the bottom towards the top to create a pinwheel shape. Then cut each roll into 1-inch strips with a sharp knife. Cut each tortilla roll into ½” – 1” strips using a sharp or serrated knife.
These are just some ideas to run with. Just remember that if any of these foods are new to your children, they may not want to try them at first or like them. It sometimes can take 12-18 times of exposing a child to a new food for them to even want to try it! To increase the likelihood of trying, always introduce a new food item with foods your child loves and is familiar with. If they’re showing a great aversion to the new food, don’t force the unfamiliar foods. Remember to take a deep breath, have patience with your child and yourself.
Nutritional deficiencies that took place before kids started school have the potential to impact cognitive outcomes in school-aged and adolescent children. For instance, clinical research has found an association between early life vitamin B12 deficiency and reduced scores on cognitive tests in adolescence.If you’d like to learn more about the relationship between child nutrition and school outcomes (concentration, activity levels, academic performance), then check out this FREE publication.