Back to school also means back to packing lunches and snacks. It's important to keep your child full and fueled so they have enough energy to tackle the school day. Especially if they are bouncing around to activities after school. If you're looking for the "right type of snack" or some new ideas for the school year, experts from Children's Hospital Colorado have you covered.
Healthy eating is an important way to support your child’s healthy growth and development. Snacks can help them get the nutrition they need and prevent them from feeling overly hungry between meals. For snacking to be healthy, though, kids need to eat the right kind of food at the right time.
Snacking tips for kids
It’s important to help children develop healthy snacking habits from a young age. Parents can accomplish this by using two strategies: setting an appropriate meal and snack schedule and offering foods rich in nutrients.
Set a schedule
Children and teens need to eat every 3 to 4 hours, which means snacks are an important part of their day. Look at your child’s schedule and plan to pack or offer snacks when gaps between meals will be long. Make sure snack time ends about 2 to 3 hours before the next meal. When kids are hungrier at mealtimes, they are often more willing to eat a nutritious meal.
It is not uncommon for kids to ask for a snack when they are bored, stressed or maybe just thirsty. If you follow your routine, you can remind your child that food will be available at the next meal or snack time. (Kids do well on a schedule if you stick to it!) It’s OK to explain that there are certain times of day for eating.
Reach for the right kind of snack
You’re busy, and your kids are busy, which means it’s tempting to purchase the single-serving bags of chips, cookies or muffins to use as a snack. But the problem is, those snacks are low in the nutrients that fuel kids’ busy bodies and help their brains to grow.
One trick to building a healthy snack is to combine two powerhouse nutrients: fiber and protein. Fiber is found in many foods that are rich in nutrients like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds. Fiber is digested slowly, which keeps the digestive tract healthy and helps kids feel fuller for longer. Protein is an important building block to fuel growth, and it also keeps our bodies healthy by playing an active role in the immune system. Together, fiber and protein help keep kids full, fueled and focused. You can combine any of the following sources of fiber and protein:
Sources of protein
- Dairy (yogurt, cheese, milk, cottage cheese)
- Eggs (cooked any way they like)
- Animal protein (sliced deli meat, jerky, tuna fish)
Sources of fiber
- Vegetables (baby carrots, cucumbers, sliced bell peppers, tomatoes)
- Fruit (apple, grapes, banana)
- Whole grains (wheat bread, whole-grain crackers, whole-grain cereal)
Sources of protein and fiber
- Nuts, seeds or peanut butter
- Hummus or bean dip, crispy chickpeas
Try different snack ideas
Snacks that require a little preparation
- 1 to 2 tablespoons of nut butter and banana slices on a small, whole-wheat tortilla, rolled and sliced up
- Tomato and avocado slices on a piece of whole-grain bread, sprinkled lightly with some cheese and toasted in the toaster oven for a few minutes
- Cucumber sandwiches on whole-grain bread with sliced cucumbers and hummus or cheese
Snacks with little to no preparation
- Whole-grain crackers with apple slices
- Dried fruit or nut trail mix
- Low-fat string or sliced cheese with 10 to 15 grapes
- Low-sodium sliced turkey breast wrapped around cherry tomatoes
- Low-fat, low-sugar Greek style yogurt and a small pear
- Sliced cucumber and whole-grain crackers
- Natural lean jerky stick (such as beef, turkey or chicken)
Prepare for unplanned snacks
Sometimes, well-meaning grandparents, friends and teachers may offer your child snacks like chips, candy and cookies. Your child may feel hungry faster than usual after eating these types of foods, and you may need to adjust your usual routine slightly to accommodate.
However, if this person interacts with your child on a regular basis, you’ll need to explain your goals to them and ask them to support you. If your child sees them daily or weekly, chances are they are pretty invested in your child’s wellness, which means they’ll likely be happy to help you with the healthy lifestyle plan you’ve made for your child.
Other general healthy snacking tips
The USDA MyPlate program, which helps families adopt healthy eating habits, offers several additional healthy snack tips for parents. Here are just a few:
Mix it up
For older school-age kids, mix dried fruit, unsalted nuts and popcorn in a snack-size bag for a quick trail mix. Blend plain fat-free or low-fat yogurt with 100% fruit juice and frozen peaches for a tasty smoothie.
A single-serving container of low-fat or fat-free yogurt or individually wrapped string cheese can be just enough for an after-school snack.
Keep an eye on the size
Snacks shouldn’t replace a meal, so look for ways to help your kids understand how much is enough. Store snack-size bags in the cupboard and use them to control serving sizes.