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Snack Nutrition: What Makes Up a Healthy Snack?

When your kid needs some fuel between meals, here's how to put together a healthy snack. Plus: How to tell if your kid is hungry or just bored.
 

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Every day at 3:00 I stand outside my 6-year-old’s school waiting for him to bounce out of the building and ask the inevitable: “Can I have a snack?”

His eyes dart from the nearby ice cream truck to the street cart selling churros (yes, churros) to the cotton candy stand on the corner. Given those options, it’s no wonder snacking has become a negative word for this generation. High-sugar, empty-carb, mindless munchies only add to the childhood obesity rates that have more than doubled in the last 30 years. 

But that doesn’t mean you need to banish between-meal noshes. In fact, “snacks get a bad rap, but growing kids need to refuel every four hours or so to keep their energy stores up,” says Jessica Crandall, R.D., a national spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

The problem isn’t snacking: It’s what kids are snacking on. “Fruits or vegetables are good, but only a small number of kids snack on healthy food,” says Barry Popkin, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In fact, his recent study found that kids consume 600 calories a day from snacks, which is more than another meal. 

And schools aren’t helping. My son’s cafeteria, for one, offers an ice cream station twice a week. Others have vending machines stocked with junk, which are (for now) exempt from federal nutrition standards. Just how big a difference would healthier options make? A study in Pediatrics found that when schools restrict vending machine choices, the average Body Mass Index of students decreases significantly — not because kids stopped snacking but because they chose healthier options.  

Supporting this idea, researchers found that kids who eat frequently are 22 percent less likely to be overweight than peers who stick to three squares. The all-day noshers snacked on healthy foods, filling them up for substantially fewer calories than a large meal.

While this is potentially good news for moms who want to appease hungry monsters at the end of the day, it also raises more questions. I usually counter my son’s pleas for ice cream with pretzels and dried apricots. I think they’re healthy, but are they really? What constitutes a nutritionally sound snack, anyway? In search of ideas, I asked Crandall; Rachel Meltzer Warren, R.D.; and Maryann Jacobsen, R.D., co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School — all fellow moms — to develop a go-to snacking guide you can rely on. 

Follow these four tips for creating the ultimate answer to “Mooom, I’m hungry!”:

1. Keep It Simple “You don’t need to hit every vitamin and mineral in order for a snack to be healthy,” says Meltzer Warren. It’s about the big picture, not micromanaging calories or specific ingredients, agrees Jacobsen. “As a general rule, I recommend shooting for a snack that includes two to three food groups: protein, dairy, fruit, veggies, whole grains, or healthy fats,” she says.

2. Go for Combos Kids eat up to 72 percent fewer calories when given a cheese-and-veggie snack versus a pile of potato chips, according to a study in Pediatrics. “The cheese and vegetables together are more satisfying,” says study co-author Mitsuru Shimizu, Ph.D. “Also, a combo of foods is less boring than a handful of chips, so kids will eat less over the same amount of time.” 

3. Add a Cool Factor When offering a snack, ask your child what his favorite superhero would eat. When 6- to 12-year-olds were asked to imagine the snack choice of Batman or Spider-man, then asked to make their own snack choice, 45 percent chose apple slices over French fries, lowering their calorie intake by 193 calories. (Brussels sprouts and broccoli are hereby dubbed Hulk smashers!) 

4. Serve It Up on Kid-Size Plates It’s no great surprise, but when first-graders used smaller dishware, they served themselves smaller portions, according to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics. When kids used adult-size dishes, they took an average of 90 additional food calories. (Watching your own waistline? Go ahead and follow your child’s lead and eat off her dishware instead!)

Plus: How to tell if they really need a nosh:

  • Hunger: "Look for irritability and low energy levels. And ask if your child’s stomach is growling," says Crandall. Also, do the math. Most kids need to eat every four hours. 
  • Habit: If she seems generally distracted or antsy, offer water first. Sometimes having a drink serves up enough activity for a restless child. To make H2O more appealing, add lemon or orange slices or drop in ice cubes containing real fruit. Fruity herbal tea is great, too. 

Plus: Get 10 healthy after-school snack ideas

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