A bite between meals has benefits for children. Snacks help satisfy hunger pangs, particularly if the child is a picky or distracted eater during regular meals, notes Lisa Richards, a nutritionist and author of The Candida Diet.
With the right snack, parents can also sneak additional nutrients into a child’s diet, adds Jada Rashawn, a professional nanny and consultant with Sittercity, an online source for childcare.
Follow these expert tips to provide healthy, tasty choices.
SELECT UNPROCESSED OR LOW-PROCESSED FOODS
Food processing ranges from grinding grain to make flour to combining multiple ingredients to make the prepared convenience foods.
Look for whole foods such as bananas, apples, grapes, and carrots, which are nutrient-dense, says Trista Best, a registered dietitian at BalanceOnce Supplements and an adjunct nutrition professor.
Admittedly, it’s challenging to avoid processed foods altogether, especially since they’re engineered to taste good. Richard recommends pairing a processed food with a portion of whole food. For instance, combine carrots or celery with plain hummus or yogurt.
“This will give kids something they will likely enjoy while also giving them a nutrient-dense snack,” she says.
Rashawn agrees. “A few goldfish can do a body good, too, even if it just means boosting their mood, so they’re happier.”
AVOID SUGARY OR SALTY TREATS
Children ages 2-18 should consume no more than 25 grams of sugar per day—about six teaspoons.
Even one or two grams of added sugar can be too much, Best says. Nix candy, chocolate, and soda, says Dr. Dyan Hes, medical director of Gramercy Pediatrics and member of the Grain Foods Foundation Scientific Advisory Board.
If sugar is one of the top three listed ingredients on the label, put the product back on the shelf, she says. “Companies can be sneaky and use organic molasses, natural honey, etc., on the labels, but these are all forms of sugar.”
Salt can also be harmful to the child’s health, Richards adds.
PROVIDE VITAMINS, MINERALS AND DIETARY FIBER
As you do with meals, make a snack using a variety of food groups, Richards says. Vegetables and hummus offer vitamins and healthy fats. “At this age, the brain is still developing relatively rapidly, and healthy fats will benefit this process without the risk of excessive weight gain,” she says.
Dr. Hes recommends whole-grain crackers with part-skim mozzarella cheese sticks, pretzel thins with nut butter or hummus, low-sugar yogurt and freeze-dried fruit snacks that provide the “crunch kids like,” she says.
Cheese and crackers are packed with nutrients, and they also will keep a child feeling satisfied between meals, Richards says.
Best says nuts and seeds are also healthy snacks. However, make sure they are appropriate for the child’s age group and development level. Like popcorn, nuts can be a choking hazard for young children, Dr. Hes says.
For older children, make snack time fun by constructing fruit kebabs with mini marshmallows or offering frozen fruit pops.
CONSIDER THE TIMING
Too many snacks will indeed ruin a child’s appetite, which is why most experts suggest limiting snacking to two or three times a day.
The ideal times are mid-morning, mid-afternoon and after dinner. However, listen to your children, who will tell you when they are hungry, Richardson says.
If a child becomes finicky at mealtimes, consider cutting back on the number of snacks you’re preparing. Rashawn adds.
Teens can help themselves, which is why it’s essential to instill good habits at an early age. Stock your kitchen with items that are healthy and convenient: fruit, vegetables, yogurt, bread for avocado toast, nut butters, and low-sugar cereals, Dr. Hes says.
Remember that teens often turn to food to soothe their emotions. Talk to them about other outlets, such as hobbies, Richards says.
PAY ATTENTION TO PORTIONS
“Always remember that snacks are not meals, and the portion size should reflect that,” Rashawn says. “If your child wants more snacks, remind them that lunch is on the way.”
If you’re unsure about the portion size, read the label.
Some parents use snacks as a reward for good behavior. That’s fine if it’s a weekly or biweekly treat for an achievement, Richards says. But avoid using food to soothe. Says Richardson: “I do not believe snacks should be used as bribery for behavior modification.”