“Mom! Mom! Mom! I wanna snack!”
“Sure, um, let’s see …”
Children are bombarded with snack food commercials on TV, billboards, even fast-food signs can trigger a snack attack.
That’s not necessarily bad. “Younger kids need to eat three meals and at least two snacks a day. Older kids need to eat three meals and at least one snack a day,” said Debi Pillarella, M.Ed., program manager at Community Hospital’s Fitness Pointe.
“Snacking increases your energy. Kids get hungry every two to three hours,” said Leela Chigurupati, Clinical Dietitian and board certified in oncology nutrition at Methodist Hospital’s Gary and Merrillville campuses. And Meg Meznarick, registered dietitian, outpatient dietician: and certified diabetes educator at IU Health La Porte Hospital, recommends kids get at least 60 minutes of activity each day. Based on that, two to three snacks daily is about right.
So parents get a green light for snacks, but there’s a caution light when it comes to content.
“Snacks are like mini-meals,” said Chiqurupati. Snacks need to be selected as carefully as a meal. Chiqurupati advised avoiding high-calorie snacks, which are usually low in nutrients. Choose nutrient-rich foods from the basic food groups—just as you choose regular meals for the family, such as whole-grain products and not foods high in salt and sugar.
Pillarella, who is Youth Fitness Spokesperson for the American Council of Exercise, advised low- to moderate-calorie snacks, with minimal processing, no additives or colorings, and low in sugar, especially high fructose corn syrup.
If your head is spinning from all the possibilities, Meznarick offered specific suggestions:
-Mash cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes.
-Buy flatbreads to make pizza—and let kids choose the toppings you offer, such as low-fat cheese and leaner ham.
-Serve carrots with a dip—kids love dips!—and whole-grain crackers with cheese. Let kids dip veggies in low-fat ranch dressing, or hummus, a lean protein snack.
-Fruit, vegetables, and whole-grain foods.
-Fat-free or low-fat milk and milk products, including yogurt. Avoid yogurts with added fruit or other toppings. Choose plain yogurt, then add fresh or frozen fruit, or sprinkle on whole-grain cereal. Let kids mix their own—just don’t make sugary cereals one of their choices more than once a week.
-Low- fat string cheese with whole grain crackers—good to pack so kids can carry it with them.
-Low-sodium turkey or ham wrapped around an apple wedge or low-fat cheese.
-Air-popped or lite popcorn is high in fiber. Sprinkle with a little Parmesan cheese or cinnamon.
-Celery with peanut butter and raisins on top.
-Whole wheat pita bread stuffed with veggies and salsa; add cheese to melt in microwave.
Setting an example
When kids want a snack before the meal you’re preparing, Chigurupati said a small snack an hour and a half to two hours before the meal is fine—and so is a before-bed snack. “Portion size is one thing parents should keep in mind. Even pre-portioned snacks can be too much for a child.”
Involve children in planning snacks and teach them as you go along, said Chigurupati. At age 2, explain why you’re now serving low-fat milk. And remember the kids are always watching: “Children follow their parents’ example; once the parent changes (food choices), the child changes.” Pillarella’s example: Low-sodium V-8 instead of sugary fruit punch.
Does a child need a multivitamin every day? All three of our experts said that’s something for a pediatrician to decide. “To make a blanket statement that ‘every child should take a daily vitamin is not recommended. according to the American Academy of Pediatrics,” said Pillarella, who is also a Certified Personal Trainer and Health Coach.
Plenty of families have a picky eater. Don’t despair: check out the cookbook "Deceptively Delicious", by Jessica Seinfeld (yes, Jerry Seinfeld’s wife). She gives tips on “hiding” nutritious foods in dishes.
Meznarick recommended “an awesome website”: choosemyplate.gov, for recipes, tips, activities, and portion sizes. Pillarella said the official site of Eat This is good resource as well: eatthis.menshealth.com
Snacking is not a bad thing, said Meznarick. “What needs to be encouraged is more activity.”