Kids are snacking more than ever, a trend that’s not expected to change any time soon.
Children are eating about 168 more calories every day as snacks than they did in 1977, according to a 2010 Health Affairs study.
“That’s enough calories to qualify for a fourth meal,” says Karen Ansel, MS, RD, an American Dietetic Association spokeswoman based in Long Island, N.Y.
The Problem With Snacking
Additional calories from any food, including snacks, add up to an unhealthy weight for kids if those extra calories aren't burned off by physical activity.
To make matters worse, kids' snacks often consist of sugary drinks and treats such as cookies, candy, and snack chips, which nearly always lack the nutrients kids need -- including calcium, vitamin D, potassium, and fiber -- to learn, play, and grow.
Allowing kids to graze all day long may also hamper their hunger cues, causing them to overeat.
“Snacking is not so good when kids are allowed to snack at will in front of the TV or in the car,” says Maryann Jacobsen, MS, RD, creator of the web site Raise Healthy Eaters.
Why Kids Need Snacks
Despite the potential pitfalls, snacking is good for children -- within limits.
“Kids, especially younger ones, have erratic eating habits, and healthy snacks can fill in nutrition gaps,” Jacobsen says.
Snacking can help kids keep their energy up, make up for skimpy or skipped breakfasts, and provide fuel before after-school sports or other activities.
What Makes a Good Snack
Think of snacks as mini meals, not meal wreckers.
That way, snacks serve as opportunities for good nutrition, and there’s no need for concern when your child isn’t as hungry for the next meal.
Most of the time, feed your child the same types of foods you would at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, including low-fat dairy and other lean protein sources, eggs, whole grains, fruits, and vegetables.
Winning snacks provide carbohydrate, protein, fiber, and some healthy fat. Generally speaking, foods rich in protein or fiber help kids stay fuller for longer, and they’re packed with the nutrients kids need to thrive.
There’s no consensus about how many calories a child’s snack should provide, but it makes sense to aim for about 100 calories for smaller children to upwards of 300 calories for active teenagers. Let your child’s hunger rule what he eats.
19 Simple, Do-It-Yourself Snacks
Making your own snacks to have at home or take with you is usually far more nutritious -- and economical -- than relying on packaged foods.
Here are some snack suggestions:
- Guacamole (look for the 100-calorie packs in the refrigerator section) or small can of low-fat bean dip and baked snack chips or toasted whole wheat pita bread, broken into chips
- Low-fat microwave popcorn tossed with Parmesan cheese
- Trail mix ingredients: 1/4 cup each: whole-grain cereal, raisins or dried cranberries, and 2 tablespoons each: sunflower seeds or chopped nuts
- Low-fat ice cream or frozen yogurt topped with fresh fruit
- Snack size (8 ounce) box of low-fat plain or chocolate milk and whole wheat pretzels
- Whole-grain crackers, string cheese, and mango slices
- Cooked or raw vegetables with low-fat ranch dressing, and a hard-boiled egg
- Instant oatmeal made with milk in the microwave with 1 teaspoon cocoa powder stirred in and topped with sliced raspberries or strawberries
- Whole-wheat pretzels with peanut butter, almond butter, or sunflower seed butter
- Cherry chocolate smoothie: Combine 1 cup low-fat milk, 1/2 cup vanilla low-fat yogurt, 1/2 cup frozen or fresh pitted cherries, and 2 tablespoons dark chocolate chips in a blender or food processor and mix until smooth.
- Bowl of whole-grain cereal and low-fat milk
- Small container of low-fat Greek yogurt
- Mini bagel spread with low-fat cream cheese and strawberry jam, and low-fat milk
- Hummus and whole wheat pita chips
- Half a sandwich and glass of orange juice fortified with calcium and vitamin D
- Slice of pizza
- Hard-boiled egg and whole-grain roll
- Pistachios in the shell and glass of chocolate milk
While you do your best to provide healthy snacks at home, your best efforts may be undermined by parents and other adults who offer your child less-than-nutritious foods.
“Give your kids lots of healthy foods at home and realize that over time, they will learn to favor more nutritious choices,” says Ansel, the mother of two.
Jacobsen, also the mother of two, offers this advice: “Teach kids to honor their hunger, and that they don’t always have to eat what’s offered to them.”
Lastly, take a look at your own snacks and serve as role model. As kids get older, they generally follow your lead, so choose healthier options when you snack, too.