Get the latest healthy living tips.
As a dietitian who blogs about family nutrition, I get asked about snacks a lot. And as a lifelong snacker–and mother to a child who would rather eat 26 snacks a day than any actual meals—I fancy myself somewhat of an expert on the topic. I couldn’t get through the day without snacks and neither could my kids. And I don’t think they should! Young kids have small bellies, so they need to eat every few hours—and big kids have active days and growth spurts that usually make eating between meals a necessity.
But some parents have a notion of snacking that can go against our goals as health professionals—and a snack-food industry that offers a zillion sugary, salty packaged options doesn’t help matters. When I’m talking to parents about snacking, here are five pieces of advice I hope they take to heart:
Children who are soooo huuunngrryyyy after school? The struggle is real.
But so is the struggle of kids who won’t eat dinner because they’ve filled up on snacks. I suggest maintaining a buffer of at least 1.5-2 hours between snacks and meals so kids are truly hungry when they come to the table. We have a policy in our house of no snacks except veggies in the hour before dinner, and it works beautifully.
“Snack” and “treat” have somehow become confused in our culture. Kids shouldn’t associate “snack” with something colorful and sugary that comes out of a bag. I tell parents that snacks should be built around the same kinds of foods served at mealtime: fruits, vegetables, meats, beans, whole grains, and dairy.
Some kids have barely any time in the cafeteria. Others (like mine) spend so much time gabbing with their friends that they may not finish their food. And some kids are just fussy about what they’ll eat at school. Parents can use the after-school snack to fill in what their kids might’ve missed. If they skipped fruit and milk at lunch, blend together a quick smoothie. If they passed up their sandwich, some whole grain crackers with cheese or peanut butter provide protein.
Typical kid snacks like pretzels or gummy fruits snacks lack the nutrients that help keep kids full. The best kind of snack has enough staying power to bridge the time between meals—not send them to the cupboard an hour later for something else. I recommend that moms and dads focus on nutrients that naturally make snacks satisfying, like fiber, protein, and fat.
Some parents assume healthy snacks have to look fun and exciting—and the internet is full of cute ideas. But most parents I know don’t have time or energy to make fun shapes out of food or construct elaborate munchies. Luckily, the building blocks for healthy snacks are right in the fridge. For parents who are overwhelmed with where to start, I suggest making a snack platter with healthy foods in the fridge arranged on a plate. It encourages variety—and looks fun too!
Sally Kuzemchak, MS, RD, is a registered dietitian, educator, author, and mom. She blogs at RealMomNutrition.com, a “no-judgments zone” all about feeding families and blogs weekly for Parents magazine. In 2014, she collaborated with Cooking Light on Dinnertime Survival Guide, a cookbook for busy families, and she recently released an e-book called The Snacktivist’s Handbook: How to Change the Junk Food Snack Culture at School, in Sports, and at Camp—and Raise Healthier Snackers at Home. An award-winning reporter and writer, Sally has been published in nearly 20 magazines including Prevention, Parents, Health, Family Circle, Eating Well, and Shape.