5 tips for finding nutritious and tasty options—and avoiding battles over junk food.
You aim for apples and veggie sticks, but the deluge of cookies, candy, and chips offered up at every turn doesn’t make it easy to serve up healthy snacks for kids. And sometimes you wonder whether it’s smart for your kids to be snacking at all. But banning snacks isn’t realistic, nor is it even best for kids.
“Children need to snack between meals,” says Kathy Keenan Isoldi, Ph.D., RDN, an assistant professor of nutrition at Long Island University Post in Brookville, New York. “Their energy needs are high, but their stomachs are small, so their nutritional intake has to be spread out over the course of the day.”
The key is to turn snack time into an opportunity to supply nutrient-rich foods and to tamp down hunger until the next meal. The right kind of snack, high in protein and fiber, will tide kids over for two to four hours. The wrong kind—those that are full of sugars or other refined carbohydrates and low in protein and fiber—may be initially satisfying, but an hour later, your child’s stomach will be growling. And these kinds of snacks typically don’t do much to boost nutrient intake.
That’s not to say that kid favorites such as cookies and chips can never be on the menu. Here are some tips for incorporating healthful snacks into your family’s routine, and for allowing less-healthful treats in a way that avoids battles.
1. Serve Nutrient-Packed Foods That Appeal to Kids
Low-sugar yogurt, paired with fresh fruit or cut-up vegetables, provides valuable nutrients without adding excess sugar or calories. If your children like sweet yogurt, buy it plain, then add a drop of honey. Mix in vanilla extract for extra flavor. Our yogurt Ratings will help you find one that’s flavorful and nutritious.
Cereal isn’t just for breakfast. If you choose right, it can make for a healthy, kid-friendly snack, with or without milk. Consumer Reports has identified many good options. You can even toss together a combo of your kid’s favorite cereal, some dried fruit, nuts, and a few chocolate chips for a healthy trail mix.
If your child likes chips, choose a type with some nutritive value. Two that come in at the top of Consumer Reports' Ratings for nutrition and flavor are Calbee Snapea Crisps Original Lightly Salted and Beanitos White Bean with Sea Salt Chips.
Popcorn is filling and fun to eat. Because it is high in fiber and low in fat and calories (provided you hold the butter), it can be an especially smart snack for kids who need to limit calories.
More options: Cheese; vegetables or baked whole grain pita pieces with hummus, guacamole, salsa, or Greek yogurt dip ; peanut butter and banana on a slice of whole wheat bread or on top of a whole grain frozen waffle, or low-fat pretzels dipped in peanut butter.
2. Allow One 'Treat' Time a Day
Let them eat cake—or ice cream, potato chips, or chocolate chip cookies. Limit treats to once a day, but let your child decide when to have them—say, after school, dessert after dinner, at a birthday-party, or a post-sports pick-me-up.
Here's an important tip from the experts: Let kids eat as much as they want at their chosen treat time. “Give the child power instead of having a food fight,” says Isoldi. When kids decide for themselves how much to eat, the treats are stripped of their allure, and the kids learn how to self-regulate their appetites.
3. Be Careful With Snack Bars
Not all bars are nutritious. Some have about the same calories, fat, and sugar as a candy bar. Read the label and choose one without highly processed ingredients high up on the ingredients list, such as Kind Plus Cranberry Almond.
4. Don’t Allow Continuous, All-Day-Long Snacking
Kids don’t need to refuel every hour. There’s no need to offer a snack after every activity, and you don’t need to carry snacks for a 30-minute car trip. Presenting children with snacks all day long gives the message that continuous food intake is necessary, when, really, it’s not. “Constant snacking is a want, not a need,” says Isoldi. She advises that an intentional, nutritious snack between lunch and dinner, as well as after dinner should work well to keep hunger at bay.
5. Snack on Food, Not Beverages
Sugar-sweetened beverages, such as soda, sports drinks, teas, and fruit juices can be high in calories and often low in nutrition. They aren’t even good for satisfying hunger. An analysis of data from National Health and Nutrition Examination Surveys found that children ages 6 to 18 end up eating more solid food and taking in more calories overall when they drink sugar-sweetened beverages. This is likely because the body does not “register” liquid calories the same as calories from food.