May 21, 2019
These days kids are just as busy as their parents, spending full days in school followed by activities ranging from soccer practice to saxophone lessons and then hitting the homework before pouring themselves into bed. Breakfasts are often rushed, as everyone grabs a bite before heading to the school bus or carpool, and school lunches are brief (children are lucky if they get 30 minutes).
As parents, it’s important to help kids keep their tanks filled, providing nutritional snacks that can boost children’s energy levels between meals and propel them through their days. Grabbing processed snacks may seem like the easiest option, but many of them provide little to nothing in the way of nutrition while swamping young bodies in sugar, corn syrup, salt and trans fats. One study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined the contents of lunchboxes carried by more than 600 Massachusetts schoolchildren; the typical snack paired a sugary beverage with a packaged food.
These empty-calorie snacks provide a short boost in blood sugar but aren’t going to keep a child going like more nutritionally dense options. “Cracker-type snacks tend to get digested quickly and fade really quickly,” explains Jill Castle, MS, RDN, co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (Jossey-Bass). “We know from research that protein quenches the appetite better and keeps them fuller longer, and healthy fats do the same.”
Little Bodies, Little Meals
Parents need to think outside of the box—or the packaging—to come up with nutritional snacks on the go. In doing so, Castle tends to look to the food groups that are listed on the USDA’s My Plate chart—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. She recommends covering a combination of two to three of these groups for each snack time.
“Think of it like a little meal, holding blood sugar up for a period of time, but also offering kids a lot of nutrition,” Castle says. “Kids need over 40 nutrients per day, including vitamins and minerals, so snacks have to count.”
Keeping Kids Healthy
September is when sneezing and coughing are as common in school hallways as backpacks and locker scrambles. That’s because coming into close contact with other kids means your children, and their immature immune systems, are more likely to come down with whatever virus is going around.
“Most parents think these conditions are just par for the course,” says Julie Durnan, ND, of the Pacifica Naturopathic Clinic in West Vancouver, Canada. “But not all children are getting sick.”
The first step in helping kids avoid colds and other ailments is to feed them the right way. “Sugar has been shown in many clinical trials to actually suppress immunity,” Durnan says.
“Focus on plenty of fresh veggies, whole fruits, nuts, seeds, legumes, eggs and meat.” These foods supply the nutrients, especially the mineral zinc along with vitamins A, C and D, that strengthen little immune systems. Some mushrooms, like the shiitake, are not only tasty but also contain compounds known to promote immunity. A high-quality multivitamin tailored to a child’s special needs can help cover nutritional shortfalls, as can supplements that supply nutrient-rich green foods such as broccoli, spirulina and spinach. And omega-3 fatty acids help regulate inflammation, an immune system response that can be harmful if not carefully calibrated.
Foods like yogurt supply healthful probiotics such as Lactobacillus acidophilus. One particular strain, Streptococcus salivarius K12, has shown a special knack for defending against throat infections. In one study, children subject to recurrent bouts of strep who took S. salivarius K12 supplements didn’t get sick as often and missed fewer school days (Drug, Healthcare and Patient Safety 2/13/14). (Another S. salivarius strain, M18, has shown an ability to fight tooth decay.)
As important as diet is when it comes to keeping kids healthy, it isn’t enough. For one thing, “children’s bodies have the same response to stress that adults’ do—their cortisol and adrenaline rises,” says Durnan; this response can lower immunity. Children should have time for “creative play” and for rest, including adequate sleep. Durnan suggests keeping a child’s bedroom dark and unplugging all electronic devices or “better yet, keep them in another room.”
You gave your children new notebooks and pens. Giving them the tools to stay healthy completes your family’s back-to-school checklist.
Kelly Walunis, a mother and a manager for Bozeman, Montana’s Community Food Co-op, tends to stay away from processed food snacks to avoid the added sugar, fat and salt. Instead, she looks for a variety of colors and proteins. “I think, ‘Does she have a green vegetable somewhere in her snacks? Is there something orange? What has protein?" Walunis explains. “I don't avoid bread or high-carbohydrate foods, but I don't seek them out either, because I feel that my daughter gets enough through provided snacks, whether it’s from the school or at a friend’s house.”
As far as how many snacks kids should eat each day, Castle says that it depends on a child’s stage of development. Preschoolers need about three snacks, school-aged kids need two or three, and teenagers should have one or two. She says the typical school-aged child should eat every three to four hours, consuming 100 to 200 calories per snack.
“Kids have smaller stomachs than adults, so they need to eat smaller meals more often,” Walunis says. “Healthy snacking promotes future healthy nutrition, which in turn prevents obesity and the diseases that go along with that.” Castle adds, “Their bodies will be fueled, their brains will function well, their appetites will be satisfied and the snacks will be contributing to their daily nutritional needs.”
When it comes to choosing nutritious foods, Stacey Antine, MS, RD, founder of HealthBarn USA and author of Appetite for Life (HarperOne), likes to frame snacks in a different way for children. Instead of referring to a food as being “healthy,” a term that may make a potato chip-loving child run the other way, she likes to talk about where snacks come from—a factory or nature.
“Kids don’t want to be duped, so why not teach them the truth about food, and the difference between natural ingredients and artificial ingredients?” Antine says. “I ask them, ‘Does it come from nature, did it grow in the ground or come from an animal?’”
In her health-based education programs, Antine teaches kids to read labels and empowers them with the knowledge they need to make practical food choices. “Once you talk about food in a way that they can understand, they start to question the foods they are eating,” she says.
Besides fueling children’s growing bodies, healthy snacks can make it easier for them to learn. Trying to keep kids engaged over a full day of school is not always an easy task under the best of circumstances; put them on a sugar high and they are likely to experience a nasty crash.
“Kids can get jacked up on juice or pretzels and spike from sugars, getting this rush where they feel ‘up’ and then come crashing down and are starving,” Antine explains. “Think about people who have to manage children’s learning every day; by sending poor snacks, we make it harder.”
Easy, Nutritious Snack Ideas
In the spirit of helping a child succeed in the classroom and beyond, it seems that healthy snacks can play a large role. So what kind of simple, yet nutritious snacks can busy parents tuck into their child’s backpack on their way out the door?
Castle’s go-to snacks include:
- A banana with peanut butter for dipping
- Whole-grain cereal mixed with peanuts, raisins, dried cherries and chocolate chips
- An all-natural granola bar with a piece of fruit
- Cheese sticks with fresh fruit
- Cheese or peanut butter with whole-grain crackers for mini-sandwiches
- Carrots and hummus
Antine’s suggestions include (see below for additional recipes):
- Homemade healthy muffins, such as banana chocolate chip
- Grapes, cheese chunks and whole-grain crackers
Walunis’ ideas include:
- Hardboiled eggs
- Dried apple or pineapple rings
- Avocado halves
“Every day is a new opportunity to help your children choose a healthier lifestyle, starting with really good food,” says Antine. Learning to reach for high-quality snacks instead of sugary junk is crucial to that process.