Snacking and Your Child: Finding the Healthy Balance

In our home, our children, ages 2 and 4, are not big eaters and daily snacks play an important role in providing them with the nourishment they need. Like all young children, they have a limited stomach capacity and often their caloric requirements are not met with the standard three meals a day.

Smart snacking can help meet these nutritional needs. Unfortunately, if snacking happens too often it can prevent my children from developing an appetite. Similarly, if they are snacking on empty calories, then an opportunity to provide nourishment is wasted.

This is why balance and keen observation is so important for snack time.

I’ve learned it is important to control what is offered as snacks and well as when and how they are handed out. A consistent snack routine, as opposed to grazing or sporadic binging, is an important solution to resolving harmful food habits- both in children and adults!

Here are suggestions for a healthy approach to snack time. They’ve proven to be helpful for my picky eaters, but remember that each child is unique, and the caloric requirements for each child may vary just as their metabolism differs.

Structure for Snack Time

  • As much as possible, have a routine in place for how you offer snacks. Have children sit in a designated eating area, like they do at mealtimes, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be at the table. My kids head for the ‘kiddie table’ in the playroom, or outdoors to the back steps of the deck.
  • Offer snacks 1-1/2 to 2 hours between meals. Here is our daily eating schedule for most days:

7:30 Breakfast
10:00 Morning Snack
12:00 Lunch
3:00 Afternoon Snack (post nap)
5:30 Dinner

  • Have a beginning and an end to snack time. This can be a prayer, song, or simply thanking the chef–you!

Safety with Snacks

  • Never hand off the food and dismiss your child. Snack time should be supervised like any other mealtime.
  • Children should be seated, not running, climbing or shouting.
  • Foods should be appropriate for the child’s age. Example: popcorn, raw carrots, whole grapes and nuts are not considered safe for toddlers.
  • Food should never be offered when a child is in a car seat and the car is in motion.

Suggestions for Snacks

Try to think of a snack more as a small meal and less as the refined, processed items that have become de rigeur. Instead of scanning the pantry shelves for tortilla chips or crackers to hand out, open the crisper drawer of the fridge and offer your children something fresh instead.

Make a point of not keeping unhealthy snacks in the house. You child will accept it if you tell them ‘Mommy doesn’t have any’, but if they can see the Doritos or Bear Paws for themselves, you may end up with a struggle on your hands. I’ve recently discovered In Snax multigrain pita crisps, a much healthier alternative to regular chips, and I occasionally hand a bowl of them out when the kids are asking for chips. Let’s face it, when they see other kids eating junk all the time, it’s a challenge to keep them excited about celery sticks!

Snack Suggestions:

Dairy:

  • Cheese
  • Cottage cheese
  • smoothies
  • frozen yogurt popsicles
  • yogurt (& granola)
  • yogurt-based dips, for veggies

Carbs/Grains

  • toasted whole wheat bagel & cream cheese
  • whole wheat bread or pita (with peanut butter or hummus)
  • whole grain crackers (& cheese)
  • homemade muffins or sweet breads
  • popcorn
  • pancakes, waffle
  • oatmeal cookies
  • granola bars

Fruit/Vegetable

  • carrot sticks
  • celery sticks, with peanut butter, with cream cheese
  • sliced cucumber
  • edammame
  • broccoli or cauliflower florettes
  • dried fruit, mango, apples, apricots, dates…
  • berries
  • stone fruit, sliced
  • grapes
  • banana, kiwi
  • apples & pears, sliced
  • citrus fruit (clementines are easy to peel for little hands)
  • melons, cubed

Protein:

  • hard boiled egg
  • cold cuts: cold roast beef, turkey,
  • cubed ham
  • nuts and seeds

Takeaway Ideas

We’re always on the go, especially mid-morning, right when that bowl of oatmeal is wearing off. Here are some ideas for take-out snacks for the grocery store aisle or the doctor’s office, that won’t cause a mess in your purse.

Be sure to stash something in the car for emergency rations!

  • Rice cakes
  • Whole Grain Crackers
  • Sesame Sticks
  • Small, whole apple
  • Carrot or celery sticks
  • Granola bars
  • Raisins

Want more ideas? Maryann has a great post on nutritious snack combinations for kids and I’m loving the finger food suggestions over at Simple Kids. Another good find is Cindy’s blog, Fix Me A Snack; I’m loving her Red Grapes with Nut Butter Yogurt Dip.

Everyone has a different approach to snacking. What’s yours?

About Aimee

Cooking has always been Aimée's preferred recreational activity, creative outlet, and source of relaxation. After nearly ten years in the professional cooking industry, she went from restaurant to RSS by trading her tongs and clogs for cookie cutters and a laptop, serving as editor here at Simple Bites.

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Comments

  1. Aimée, I have been thinking a lot lately about snacks and how it may play into children’s picky eating habits. modern parents are so rushed and many who cook 3 healthy meals a day still turn to processed carbs for snacks, thus setting children’s preference for them. Your suggestions are great as a way to extend the healthy approach at meals to snack time as well.

    -Robin
    .-= Robin (Hippo Flambe)’s last blog: Strawberry ShortCake =-.

  2. Emily @ The Pilot's Wife says:

    This is fabulous! My 17 month old gets most of his food from snacking. He’s just too busy to sit for a full meal! Thankfully he is not too picky, his favorite snacks are cheese, raisins, yogurt, and bananas. I love all these fresh ideas!
    .-= Emily @ The Pilot’s Wife’s last blog: Project Life {March 28- April 10} =-.

  3. Thanks for the snacking ideas and guidelines…sometimes I need reminders and sometimes I need new ideas. My husband and I had been talking about snacking and our little one in the past month, so thanks for the post!

  4. I think my favorite part of this post is that my meal and snacking schedule is almost the same as what you use for your children. I’m 23…

    I definitely agree with the idea of not keeping junk food in the house. I know I would choose chips over carrot sticks if presented that choice. ;)

  5. What a wonderful topic to cover. I think we all need snacks in our life, not just the little ones. For us snacking changes as the kids change. Now that my nine year old plays a lot of rep sports his snacking is a necessity – he needs the energy to keep on the ice or the field for two hours at a time, so we take those bites of food just as seriously as our meals. My younger boy must have protein at all snacks/meals or he becomes a very grumpy guy (it took me a long time to figure this out but now that I have our days are so much nicer!). I’ve printed off your list of suggestions – I think it’s a great complitation and offers lots of inspiration.

    • Good to know, Jan. =) I expect my boys will eat us out of house and home one day, although that is hard to imagine right now.

      What kind of protein snacks do you fix for your pre-teens? Do they have favorites?
      .-= Aimee’s last blog: Snacking and Your Child: Finding the Healthy Balance =-.

      • Our protein snacks are usually made up of the following: apple slices with a nut butter (usually peanut), cheese, veggies and hummus or other bean dips, meatballs (might seem odd but they love turkey meatballs), hard boiled eggs, smoothies with yogurt and avocado (plus whatever other fruit we have on hand).

        And be prepared for them to eat you out of the house….I promise you they will. My almost-ten-year-old is 5′ tall and always hungry!
        .-= Jan (Family Bites)’s last blog: Meal Planning Monday =-.

  6. Great post! I’ve been trying to work up the energy to write a post along similar lines. I’m just too busy makin’ pies lately though!
    Anyway, while I completely agree with all of this, I find it hard to draw a line in the sand with schedules and snacking in the car and such. It seems whenever we think of a ‘rule’ regarding feeding children they do their best to become the exception. All the same, this post is an excellent set of guidelines.

    What has helped me the most as far as managing my family’s appetite is:
    a) Offer fruits and vegetables, the higher in water content the better, when snacks occur close to meal time. (For my youngest, I had to give her fruit in the afternoon when she was 2-3 or she wouldn’t touch her dinner – even with a couple hours inbetween.) I also used to string her along to dinner time by offering a single dried apricot when she just couldn’t wait any longer for food. A hungry toddler is not a model of patience and understanding.
    b) Keep healthy snacks on reserve, make it simple, and try not to care too much. Try not to give too many choices. When I’m desperate for my kid to eat, I often find myself offering longer lists of choices with too much sugar in the mix. If they’re hungry, they’ll eat. Even when they are too busy playing, they will evenutally cave in to hunger. The fine art of being the provider of food is having something healthy and appealing at the ready.

    Thanks a bunch for the link Aimee.

  7. I love this. Healthy snacking is so important for keeping blood sugar levels even in kids (and grown ups) thanks for the great suggestions!

  8. Thanks for the link Aimee. I think snacking has gotten a bad rap lately because people associate it with empty calorie snack foods and grazing. I talk about this in my recent post http://www.raisehealthyeaters.com/2010/03/is-your-kid-a-good-or-bad-snacker/

    I agree with everything you write. Structure with snacks is key. We (I eat with my kids!) usually have a snack before leaving the house so my kids don’t have to eat on the run. I also think of snacks them as mini meals and always try to include a carbohydrate, protein and fat to help manage hunger. If the snack ends up being closer to dinner I keep it light like a fruit or carrot sticks. But I also realize my daughter has a small appetite for dinner which isn’t a bad thing as most of the adults I counsel eat large amounts at night.

    But I think the most important thing is regular meals and snacks provides kids with many opportunities to eat (and learn to like) a variety of food. It helps to take the pressure off parents because if kids don’t eat much at one meal, the next one is only a couple of hours away.

    Thanks for the great post!!

  9. Love these tips. My poor sonny gets the same things over and over. Fresh fruit, dried fruit and yogurt for the most part because those are the things he eats less of at mealtimes. He actually has quite a large appetite and only eats 1 snack a day.. very often if I try to give him another snack in there it just ends up on the floor. Not sure if this is a bad system? Our day looks like this:
    8:30- breakfast
    11:30- lunch
    1:00- naptime
    3 or 4:00 (depending on his nap)- snack
    6:00- supper
    I have always read that kids are supposed to have a couple of snacks a day but he never seems to need them. Like I said he eats a lot at mealtimes.. I’m just not sure if I should be encouraging him otherwise?
    .-= Cheri’s last blog: White Monday =-.

    • So he eats when he’s supposed to, is that what you’re saying, Cheri? =) Sounds great to me!!

      My kid’s could never go from 11:30 to 6 w/o a snack, but it sounds like yours is getting plenty to eat.
      .-= Aimee’s last blog: Snacking and Your Child: Finding the Healthy Balance =-.

      • Ha ha.. I guess he is. :)

        He does have a snack in the afternoon.. just not a morning snack… I think it has more to do with his sleeping schedule because he wakes up later then most kids. It’s hard to fit three meals between when he get’s up and when he goes down again. I have often tried to feed him just before his nap.. but by then he’s just interested in sleeping and doesn’t eat it anyways.

        I have always wondered how people got their kids to eat so many snacks. But, I don’t feel quite so bad about it now. :)
        .-= Cheri’s last blog: White Monday =-.

    • That is a lot like our routine. My oldest isn’t much of a breakfast eater, but snacks most of the morning, then eats a good lunch. And she’s like her Dad. After her nap she is pretty much ready to eat non-stop until bed – if we let her. But a good afternoon snack and dinner helps.
      .-= Cheryl Arkison’s last blog: Cardamom Ice Cream =-.

  10. I love this post! You are right on the money – snack time is an opportunity to provide nourishment, not just to fill up an empty belly. Chips are my personal downfall – but they are really easy to bake in the oven if you want to control their ingredients (simply cut up tortillas, brush with olive oil, salt and bake till crispy). I find that when the kids are really hungry, it’s a good time to put out sliced veggies (maybe late in the afternoon when we are prepping dinner) – that way it’s less urgent and stressful if they don’t eat their veggies at dinner.
    .-= Michelle (What’s Cooking)’s last blog: What’s Cooking with YOUR Kids – Letting Kids Be Creative =-.

  11. Just realized you were in the webinar with me! :)
    I TRY to be on a schedule like the one you posted, but my DD3 likes to graze. Thankfully she is all about cherry tomatoes, cheese, avocados, etc. But still, I’d rather she ate more at meals. I think the biggie with her is she is a slow eater. really, really slow. so she doesn’t eat enough at mealtime. I also find snacktime during spring and summer is so much easier with fresh produce all over the place. love it!
    .-= lunzy’s last blog: Blogiversary!! =-.

  12. What a great read. We have a similar eating schedule. My little guy is very active and RUNS (seriously) all over the place-so I find a snacking tray works well for him during snack time.

    He’ll run to the kitchen, nibble a bit and then run back to play. It is so cute!
    .-= Melissa’s last blog: Buttermilk Poundcake =-.

  13. We have a morning snack and a Tea Time/Afternoon snack … and you’ve got some of our favorites on this list :-) Yum! We like to have a different smoothie every day with a different color every day (even green)

    Love your list for car snacks – that is a good idea. I should get better about keeping some of those things in the diaper bag for emergency snacking when we’re out and about, too.
    .-= Kara’s last blog: Weekend Showcase: Link Love =-.

  14. Katherine says:

    What wonderful information! Mothers need to become aware of the importance of snack time as a “mini meal.” It’s an opportunity to nourish your child, not fill them with empty calories and processed “junk!” Great post.

  15. yay this post reassured me that my daughter is eating healthy :)

    my daughter eats 3 meals 3 snacks a day, she is 2 and she kept waking up in the middle of the night hungry so her pediatrician actually told us it was ok to do and it works perfect for her.

    I am trying to offer more veggies during her snacks though and I have to be honest I don’t know anything about edamame, ive only recently heard about it. would it be a good food for a 2 year old and how should i serve it?

  16. In addition to three main meals my kids snack three times/day: around 10:30, 3:00 and before bed. They are growing so fast and need lots of food to keep’em going. I don’t have to supervise snacks much at their ages- the two oldest at least (apart from sometimes reminding them to make sure they’ve had enough fruit) – we don’t have junk in the house so they’ll have no choice but to make decent choices.

  17. Thank you for the great ideas! I’m going to print this off and put it on the fridge so I’ll never be at a loss for a good snack (or meal!) idea…plus, it’ll help to have handy when I prepare the grocery list.

    -kristiina

  18. What a thorough and thoughtful post, Aimee. Thanks for all the great suggestions.

    And thanks for stopping by Bloom, too.
    .-= Bloom’s last blog: Interview with Jesse Mecham of YNAB =-.

  19. How old before starting the schedule? I feed my almost 2 year old on demand – only healthy things though. She ASKS for brocolli and bananas and oranges and cheese and… And she’s a tall/big kid (we’re both tall adults) so it makes sense that she’s going to grow a lot. I just don’t know about the schedule thing. The snacks don’t make the regular meals any less either. So, if she eats well at meals, is the grazing thing an issue right now?

  20. Emily from ReadyToWait.com says:

    This is really complete and thoughtful. I think so many parents struggle with snacks. There was just a NYT article about kids snacking too much and I read another blog that really helped me work out some guidelines for my own family. Here are our guidelines:
    http://readytowait.com/journal/2010/1/31/snacks-vs-treats.html

  21. I’m so excited to try out these snack ideas. My 2 year old is a snacker and I’d like to make it more healthy. In addition, I want to try keeping some leftover grilled chicken strips so he can dip them in a ranch or yogurt dip. He LOVES dipping.
    Mel@TheDizzyMom’s last post: Lose the Baby Fat: ViSalus Update

  22. Thanks for the link love Aimee. Great post!

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