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The Smart Parent's Guide to Healthy Snacking

Principles of Healthy Noshing

Before you serve up a mid-morning or afternoon snack, use this checklist of tips from Jodie Shield, R.D., coauthor of American Dietetic Association Guide to Healthy Eating for Kids.

  1. Time it right. Snacks should complement meals--not replace them. Offer them at regular times each day, at least 1 1/2 hours before a meal.
  2. Serve snacks in the kitchen, and eliminate any distractions (such as television, video games, and computers) that can lead to mindless overeating.
  3. Pump it up. For maximum nutrients, aim for at least two food groups in each snack. Some to try: breadsticks and cheese, celery and peanut butter, or our Sunshine Smoothie.
  4. Practice what you preach. You can't expect your child to learn to eat healthy snacks if you're munching on a candy bar. Be a good role model.
  5. Think outside the snack-food box. In a rut? Serve hard-boiled eggs, a whole-wheat tortilla with cheese, or our Mini Pizzas.
  6. Encourage shelf-control. Is your child old enough to raid the snack cabinet? She'll want what she can see and reach, so put nutritious staples front and center and sweets and chips out of sight.
  7. Travel smart. When you're in the car, bring items such as string cheese, mini bags of pretzels and dry cereal, juice boxes, and baby carrots in a small cooler or insulated lunch box.
  8. Push protein. Keep your child satisfied by including some protein in his between-meal nibbles, such as cheese, peanut butter, and single-serving cans of tuna.
  9. Prevent cavities. Encourage your child to brush her teeth--or at least rinse her mouth with water--after snacks.
  10. Relax! Keep in mind that a few cookies or chips are fine--it's the long-term quality of your child's diet that counts.

Print our handy list of The Best and Worst Munchies for Kids to hang on your refrigerator door.

 
Homemade With Love

Kids love all the bells, whistles, and cartoon-themed packaging of supermarket snacks. But if you're looking for more economical--and nutritious--ways to fuel your little ones, try making fun snacks at home that seem a little more special. Here are some easy ways to do it.

Fill tiny, colorful storage containers with our crunchy Kids' Snack Mix. Other good options: cheese and crackers, pea pods and dip, mini cookies, or dried fruit.

Pack mini resealable plastic bags with your child's favorites. That way, you can control portion sizes.

Serve snacks in unexpected ways. Pour cereal and milk into a mug, freeze some single-serve containers of applesauce, make a "painter's palate" by putting dabs of flavored yogurt on a plate and serving it with graham crackers.

Kids' Snack Pyramid

Not sure what's truly healthy and what should be saved for an occasional treat? Use our exclusive pyramid to help plan your child?s snacks each week.

Only for a special treat: candy, chocolate, cheese puffs, potato chips, taco chips, cookies, toaster pastries, cupcakes, snack cakes, doughnuts, french fries, soda.

Fine 3 or 4 times a week: pretzels, ice cream, frozen yogurt, snack crackers, frozen pizza bagels, pudding, vanilla wafers, animal crackers, granola bars, ice pops, fruit juice.

Good for everyday: whole-wheat crackers, unsweetened cereal, cut-up vegetables, fresh fruit, dried fruit, string cheese, peanut butter, yogurt, breadsticks.

Portion-Size Primer

There's an epidemic of childhood obesity in our country, so being aware of portion sizes is especially important, says Christine Williams, M.D., director of the Children's Cardiovascular Health Center at Columbia University, in New York City. Kids currently get 25 percent of their daily calories from snacks, compared to 20 percent decades ago. "Kids need to snack, but extra snacks can add up to extra weight," Williams says. Her daily recommendation: Stick to three 100- to 150-calorie snacks for preschoolers and two 200-calorie snacks for school-age children.

100-150 Calorie Snacks
1 cup applesauce
1 cup low-fat yogurt
1 oz. string cheese with crackers
1 slice whole-grain toast with low-fat spread
1 cup cereal and milk

200 Calorie Snacks
Veggies and low-fat dip
2 rice cakes and peanut butter
1/2 cup trail mix
1/2 sandwich with lean meat on whole-wheat bread
Baked potato with cheese

Did your child skip milk at lunch? Not eat her apple? Here are some essential nutrients and foods she might be missing, plus treats that will pick up the slack.

Calcium

Why kids need it: Calcium is crucial for proper growth and bone building during childhood. Eleven percent of 1- to 3-year-olds and 40 percent of 4- to 8-year-olds don't get enough.

Power snacks: Calcium-fortified mini waffles; ice-cream cone filled with yogurt; mixed cereal and fruit; chunks of banana dipped in yogurt and rolled in cereal; pretzel sticks with cheese cubes on either end.

Fruits and vegetables

Why kids need them: They're packed with vitamins, fiber, and disease-fighting antioxidants. Plus, they're low in calories and fat-free--and help keep kids hydrated.

Power snacks: A fruit and veggie smiley face on a plate (use peanut butter as the "glue"); baked chips and salsa; Apricot Cookie Bars.

Protein

Why kids need it: Protein helps build muscle needed during peak growth. It also helps fight infection.

Power snacks: A piece of ham rolled around string cheese; hard-boiled-egg wedges; peanut butter spread on apple slices; whole-wheat pita cut into quarters and spread with bean dip.

Fiber

Why kids need it: High-fiber diets tend to be healthier overall--in part because fiber-rich foods boast more nutrients and prevent overeating. Fiber also reduces constipation.

Power snacks: Wheat germ sprinkled into yogurt and ice cream; whole-wheat tortillas spread with hummus; raisin bran and milk.

Prepackaged snacks are often a necessity for busy moms--and there are tons of just-for-kids products on store shelves these days. So what's nutritious, and what's not? Things like prepacked baby carrots and boxes of raisins are no-brainers. But you may have to do some label sleuthing before you buy other foods. Here's what to check:

  • Serving size: Is the size appropriate for your child, or will she eat more? Many "snack-size" packages actually contain multiple servings. If so, be prepared to divide them up at home.
  • Fat: "There's little evidence that reduced-fat and fat-free products help kids maintain or lose weight," Shield says. Besides, fat is often replaced with more sugar. She advises going low-fat with staples, such as milk and yogurt, but choosing full-fat cookies or treats and keeping portions reasonable.
  • Fiber: Whole grains are your best choice when selecting breads, crackers, cereals, and other high-carb foods. Look for at least 2 to 3 grams of fiber per serving.
  • Ingredient list: "The longer the list, the more processed that food probably is," says Deanna Rose, R.D., spokesperson for the National Dairy Council.

The Truth About Sugar

You know that sugar is packed into the usual snack suspects: candy, cookies, cupcakes. But it's also added to yogurt, granola bars, and fruit cocktail. After all, manufacturers realize what parents have long known: Kids naturally prefer sweet foods. Though sugar's off the hook for causing hyperactivity and other behavior problems, it's still linked to cavities and has even been blamed in part for the rise in obesity rates. So it makes sense to keep an eye on intake.

In general, experts advise choosing snacks in their purest form--in other words, without candy sprinkles and bubble-gum flavoring. When reading labels, steer clear of foods that list sugar (or one of its aliases, such as corn syrup) among the first few ingredients. Sometimes you can switch to lower-sugar versions without your child noticing a difference--low-sugar peanut butter, for instance. But with other foods, a spoonful of sugar often helps the nutrients go down. In fact, according to a recent University of Vermont study, children who drank flavored milk consumed more milk--and higher levels of calcium. "It's all a balancing game," Shield says. If your child will only eat yogurt with added sugar, be thankful he?s getting a healthy dose of protein and calcium--but pass on other sugary foods that day.

Recipes By Jackie Plant and Fraya Berg

Unlike many store-bought treats, these homemade snacks are low in sugar and fat--but believe us, they still taste amazing.

Apricot Cookie Bars

2/3 cup dried apricots, chopped
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1/4 cup wheat germ
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. salt
6 Tbs. butter, softened
1/3 cup brown sugar
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1/2 tsp. vanilla
1 1/4 cups old-fashioned oats

1. Heat oven to 350?F. Line 8"x8" baking pan with foil. Place apricots in blender with 1/3 cup boiling water, cover, and let sit while making batter.

2. In bowl, combine flour, wheat germ, baking soda, and salt. Set aside. In mixer bowl, beat butter and sugars until light and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Beat in egg and vanilla until well combined. With mixer on low, beat in flour mixture. Stir in oats. Divide batter into thirds. Press 2/3 of batter into lined pan.

3. Puree apricots in blender and spread over batter. Divide remaining batter into clumps and sprinkle over apricots. Bake 35 minutes. Makes 18 bars.

Nutrition per bar: 114 cal.; 2 g pro.; 17 g carb; 5 g fat.

Apple-Bran Muffins

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 cup whole-wheat flour
1 cup bran flakes, crushed
1 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. cinnamon
1/4 tsp. salt
1 cup applesauce
1/4 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable oil
2 large eggs
Confectioners' sugar (optional)

1. Heat oven to 400?F. Grease 10 muffin cups. In large bowl, combine flours, bran flakes, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt. In small bowl, whisk together applesauce, sugar, oil, and eggs. Stir applesauce mixture into dry ingredients, blending just until mixed. Spoon batter into muffin cups, and bake 18 minutes. Sprinkle muffin tops with confectioners' sugar, if desired.

Nutrition per muffin: 193 cal.; 4 g pro.; 30 g carb; 7 g fat.

Sunshine Smoothies

1 8-ounce container vanilla yogurt
1/4 cup carrot juice
1 frozen banana, sliced
2 tsp. orange-juice concentrate

Process all ingredients in blender until smooth. Makes 2 servings.

Nutrition per serving: 176 cal; 7 g pro; 35 g carb; 2 g fat.

Kids' Snack Mix

2 Tbs. butter
1 Tbs. honey
2 cups Cheerios
2 cups small pretzels
1 1/2 cups Kix cereal
1 cup walnut pieces
1 1/2 cup golden raisins
1 1/4 cup mini M&M's, chocolate chips, or yogurt-coated raisins

1. Heat oven to 350?F. Line baking pan with foil. In large glass bowl, combine butter and honey. Microwave on high 1 minute. Add Cheerios, pretzels, Kix, and walnuts, stirring to combine.

2. Bake until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Let cool 5 minutes, and stir in raisins and M&M's. Makes about 20 1/3-cup servings.

Nutrition per serving: 120 cal.; 3 g pro.; 15 g carb; 6 g fat.

Mini Pizzas

Pita bread
Cooked broccoli
Grated mozzarella
Pizza sauce

1. Split open mini pitas, and stuff with cooked broccoli. Place tops on, and sprinkle with grated mozzarella and pizza sauce.

2. Microwave pitas 20 seconds on medium heat, or until cheese is completely melted.

Nutrition per pizza: 50 cal.; 3 g pro.; 7 g carb; 1 g fat.

Copyright © 2003 Sally Kuzemchak. Reprinted with permission from the February 2003 issue of Parents Magazine.