Snacking has gotten a bad reputation, but it doesn’t have to be a dietary villain. A bite between meals can prevent kids from getting cranky (Yes, being “hangry” is real.), and it might make up for nutritional shortfalls. The issue isn’t whether kids snack, but how well they eat when they do snack.
A study in Public Health Nutrition found that in younger children, snacking actually improves overall diet quality. But in teens, who don’t always make the best snack choices, snacking worsens diet quality while increasing daily calories.
“Snacks can be beneficial to children’s diets when made up of the right foods. But we do need to be aware that snacks do positively contribute to energy intake in children,” said study author E. Whitney Evans, a postdoctoral research fellow at Brown University and the Weight Control and Diabetes Center at The Miriam Hospital.
When searching for the perfect snack, parents should point their young eaters in the direction of foods that are rich in nutrients and light in calories. Real foods like whole grains, fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and cheese are much better choices than processed snack chips and cookies. Be wary of foods that seem healthy, but aren’t — like granola bars and cereals, which are often high in sugar.
Protein is also a plus in kids’ snacks. Research from the University of Missouri finds that a high-protein snack can stop teens from making poor food choices. “When kids eat high-protein snacks in the afternoon, they are less likely to eat unhealthy snacks later in the day, which is particularly important for kids who want to prevent unhealthy weight gain,” said Heather Leidy, PhD, an assistant professor of nutrition and physiology.
At school, new rules will help encourage kids to snack smarter. The government’s nutritional standards now require schools to serve healthier foods in both the cafeteria and snack bar. That means schools will replace cookies, candy, and other junk food with more nutrient-dense foods like peanuts, fruit cups, and light popcorn.
At home, parents can encourage healthier snacking by stocking the pantry and fridge with high-fiber, high-protein foods. Instead of opening a box or bag at snack time, get kids involved in making their own snacks. Here are a few healthy recipes to get you started:
Every bit as satisfying as a granola bar, these nutrient-dense cookies are packed with whole grains but are much lower in sugar.
The beauty of this recipe lies in its simplicity — only two ingredients. Yet those ingredients — Greek yogurt and peanut butter — are rich in fill-your-kids-up protein and low in sugar.
Instead of giving your kids potato chips or pretzels, which have almost no nutrition, substitute protein- and fiber-filled chickpeas. Roasting gives them the feel of a tasty snack food — with a healthy twist!
August 25, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA