Most of the snacks served to children should be fruits and vegetables, since most kids do not eat the recommended five to 13 servings of fruits and vegetables each day.
Serving fresh fruits and vegetables can seem challenging. However, good planning and the growing number of shelf-stable fruits and vegetable products on the market make it easier. Though you may think fruits and vegetables are costly snacks, they are actually less expensive than many other less-healthful snacks on a per-serving basis. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the average cost of a serving of fruit or vegetable (all types—fresh, frozen and canned) is 25 cents per serving. This is a good deal compared with a 99-cent single-serve bag of potato chips or a $1 candy bar. Try lots of different fruits and vegetables and prepare them in various ways to find out what your kids like best.
Fruit is naturally sweet, so most kids love it. Fruit can be served whole, sliced, cut in half, cubed or in wedges. Canned, frozen and dried fruits often need little preparation. But please note that large chunks are a choking hazard for children younger than 4 and should be avoided.
Applesauce (Unsweetened), Fruit Cups, and Canned Fruit
These have a long shelf life and are low-cost, easy, and healthy if canned in juice or light syrup. Examples of unsweetened applesauce include Mott's Natural Style and Mott's Healthy Harvest line. Dole and Del Monte offer a variety of single-serve fruit bowls.
Try raisins, apricots, apples, cranberries, pineapple, papaya, and others with little or no added sugars.
Try freezing grapes or buy frozen blueberries, strawberries, peaches, mangoes, and melon.
Some brands of fruit snacks are more like candy than fruit, and should be avoided due to their high content of added sugars and lack of fruit.
Get kids to help make a fruit salad. Use a variety of colored fruits to add to the appeal.
Most so-called "fruit" popsicles have added sugars and should be reserved for an occasional treat. Look for popsicles made from 100% fruit juice with no added caloric sweeteners, such as Breyers or Dole "No Sugar Added" fruit bars.
Blend fruit with juice, yogurt or milk, and ice. Many store-made smoothies have added sugars and are not healthy choices.
Vegetables can be served raw with dip or salad dressing. Remember that veggies cut in large pieces are a choking hazard for children younger than 4 and should be avoided.
Try low-fat salad dressings, store-bought light dips, bean dips, guacamole, hummus (which comes in dozens of flavors), salsa, or peanut butter. Just be sure to avoid large globs of it for children younger than 2 because it's a choking hazard.
Make a salad or set out veggies like a salad bar and let the kids build their own salads.
Edamame are fun to eat and easy to serve. (Heat frozen edamame in the microwave for about 2 to 3 minutes.)
Cut whole-wheat pitas in half and let kids add veggies with dressing or hummus.
Ants on a Log
Let kids spread peanut butter on celery (with a plastic knife) and add raisins.
Though most kids eat plenty of grain products, too many of those grains are cookies, snack cakes, sugary cereals, and other refined grains that are high in sugars or fat. Save these for occasional treats. Try to serve mostly whole grains, which provide more fiber, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains. In addition, try to keep the added sugars to less than 35% by weight, and the saturated and trans fat low (basically 1g or less per serving).
Whole Wheat English Muffins, Pita or Tortillas
Stuff them with veggies or dip them in hummus or bean dip.
Either dry or with low-fat milk, whole grain cereals like Cheerios, Grape-Nuts, Raisin Bran, Frosted Mini Wheats, and Wheaties make good snacks. Look for cereals with no more than roughly 8g of sugar per serving.
Whole grain crackers like Triscuits, which come in different flavors or thin crisps (or similar woven wheat crackers), Kalvi Rye crackers, or whole wheat Matzos can be served alone or with toppings, like low-fat cheese, peanut butter, or low-fat, reduced-sodium luncheon meat.
Look for rice cakes made from brown (whole grain) rice. They come in many flavors, and can be served with or without toppings.
Look for low-fat popcorn in a bag or microwave popcorn. Or you can air pop the popcorn and season it, such as by spraying it with vegetable oil spray and adding parmesan cheese, garlic powder, or other non-salt spices. Since it's a choking hazard, don't serve it to children younger than 4.
Baked Tortilla Chips
They're usually low in fat, and taste great with salsa and/or bean dip.
Granola and Cereal Bars
Look for whole grain granola bars that are low in fat and sugars, like Barbara's Granola Bars (cinnamon raisin, oats and honey, and carob chip flavors), Nature Valley Crunchy Granola Bars (cinnamon, oats 'n honey, maple brown sugar, and peanut butter flavors), Nature Valley Chewy Trail Mix Bars (fruit and nut flavor), and Quaker Chewy Granola Bar (peanut butter and chocolate chunk flavor).
Pretzels, Breadsticks, and Flatbreads
These low-fat items can be offered as snacks now and then. However, most of these snacks are not whole grain and most pretzels are high in salt.
Dairy foods are a great source of calcium, which can help to build strong bones. However, dairy products also are the biggest sources of artery-clogging saturated fat in kids' diets. To protect children's bones and hearts, make sure all dairy foods served are low-fat or fat-free.
Look for brands that are low-fat or fat-free, moderate in sugars (no more than about 30g of sugars in a 6-oz. cup), and high in calcium (at least 25% of daily value [DV] for calcium in a 6-oz. cup). Examples include Danimals Drinkable Low-Fat Yogurt, Go-Gurt by Yoplait, or cups of low-fat or non-fat yogurt from Stonyfield Farm, Dannon, Horizon, and similar store brands. Low-fat or non-fat yogurt also can be served with fresh or frozen fruit or low-fat granola.
Cheese provides calcium, but often its saturated fat price tag is too high. Cheese is the number two source of heart-damaging saturated fat in children's diets. Even with low-fat and reduced-fat cheese, be sure to serve with other foods like fruit, vegetables, or whole grain crackers. Choose reduced-fat cheeses like Trader Joe's Armenian Style Braided; Borden or Sargento Light Mozzarella string cheese; Frigo Light Cheese Heads; Kraft Twist-Ums; Polly-O Twisterellas; the Laughing Cow's Light Original Mini Babybel; or Cabot 50% Light Vermont Cheddar.
Low-Fat Pudding and Frozen Yogurt
Low-fat or fat-free pudding and frozen yogurt should be served only as occasional treats, because they are high in added sugars.
Since nuts are high in calories, it is best to serve them along with another snack such as fruit. A small handful of nuts is a reasonable serving size. Examples include peanuts, pistachios, almonds, walnuts, cashews, or soy nuts. Look for nuts that are unsalted. Since it is a choking hazard, don't serve to children younger than 4.
Before serving peanuts, peanut butter, or other nuts as a snack, check to make sure none of the children has an allergy.
Trail mixes are easy to make and store well in a sealed container. Items to include: low-fat granola, whole grain cereals, peanuts, cashews, almonds, sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, and dried fruits like raisins, apricots, apples, pineapple, or cranberries.
Choose lower-fat, reduced-sodium brands of turkey, ham, and roast beef and serve with whole wheat bread, pita, tortillas (as a wrap sandwich), or crackers. Cut sandwiches in half to make snack-sized portions.
Water should be the main drink served to kids at snack times. Water satisfies thirst and does not have sugar or calories. If kids are used to getting sweetened beverages at snack times, it may take a little time for them to get used to drinking water.
Carbonated drinks like seltzer, sparkling water, and club soda are healthy options. They do not contain the sugars, calories, and caffeine of sodas. Serve them alone or try making "healthy sodas" by mixing them with equal amounts of 100% fruit juice.
Low-Fat and Fat-Free Milk
Milk provides key nutrients, such as calcium and vitamin D. Choose fat-free skim- or low-fat (1%) milk to avoid the heart-damaging saturated fat found in whole and 2% milk. It is best to serve fat-free versions of chocolate, strawberry, or other flavored milks to help balance the extra calories coming from added sugars. Single-serve containers of chocolate or other flavored whole or 2% milk drinks can be too high in calories (400-550 calories) and saturated fat (1/3 of a day's worth) to be a healthy beverage for kids.
Soy and Rice Drinks
For children who prefer not to drink cow's milk, calcium-fortified soy and rice drinks are good choices.
Try to buy 100% fruit juice and avoid the added sugars of juice drinks, punches, fruit cocktail drinks, or lemonade. Drinks that contain at least 50% juice and no additional caloric sweeteners are also healthful options. To find 100% juice, look at beverage nutrition labels for the percentage of the beverage that is juice. Orange, grapefruit, and pineapple juices are more nutrient-dense and are healthier than apple, grape, and pear juices.
Fruit juice can be rich in vitamins, minerals, and cancer-fighting compounds. However, it is high in calories. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that children ages 1-6 years old drink no more than 6 ounces (one serving) of juice a day and children ages 7-18 years old drink no more than 12 ounces (2 servings) of juice a day.
A note about sugary soft drinks (soda, sweetened tea, lemonade, and juice drinks): Children who drink more sweetened drinks consume more calories and are more likely to be overweight than kids who drink fewer soft drinks. Soft drinks also end up taking the place of healthful foods in kids' diets, such as milk, which can help prevent osteoporosis, and 100% juice, which can help prevent heart disease and cancer. In addition, soda can cause dental cavities and tooth decay.
Originally featured at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (cspi.net) and reprinted with permission. Copyright ? 2012 Meredith Corporation.