Dietitian Tips on Healthy Snacking for Kids

by pediatric dietitian, Ashley Smith of Veggies and Virtue

Did you know that February is National Snack Foods month?

While there seems to be at least a day, let alone a week or a month, dedicated to just about every food out there, it is no surprise that snacks get the spotlight as well. Starting with the snacking splurges of the Super Bowl, the Snack Food Association (SFA) started this month-long event initially in attempts “to increase consumption and build awareness of snacks during a month when snack food consumption was traditionally low.”

As a dietitian mom, my concern is much less on promoting the sales of snacks foods as much as it is promoting the right types of foods for a child’s snack.

So often families struggle to get their children to eat real meals. Grazing and snacking happen without any struggle, but when it comes time to get nutrient-dense foods like fruits, vegetables, healthy fats, lean proteins, and whole grains in our children, we often find ourselves with a bit more of a fight.

That’s why this month we are going to highlight five simple steps to establishing a better snack routine in your household. This can work with any age; it may just need to be adjusted in timing between meals and/or the amount offered depending on the age of your child.

  1. Establish a meal and snack routine. If you tend to allow your child to determine when meals and/or snacks or offered, start with reviewing your usual day and establishing some new patterns to when meals and snacks will be served. Aim to offer something to eat every 2-3 hours throughout the day. This routine may be flexible to your schedule, any sickness, or other unforeseen events but in general should stay predictable (for both you and your child). This helps establish your responsibility for determining what, when, and where the meal or snack is offered and your child is responsible if/whether and how much he/she eats at those pre-established meal and snack times.
  2. Enforce a “Kitchen is Closed” policy. Allow your child to have as much of the offered snack at a set snack time, remembering it is up to them if/whether and how much they eat of the foods offered. However, after snack time is over, reinforce to your child that there will not be more foods offered again until the next meal. In the meantime, simply state that “the Kitchen is Closed” if they ask to eat (aka graze) after snack but before the next meal. This helps them to understand age-appropriate boundaries around eating while also learning how to eat for appropriate fullness when foods are offered.
  3. Choose snacks wisely. Is it any surprise that kids can fill up on “snack foods” like fruit snacks and Goldfish crackers and then refuse many of the “real foods” we offer at meal times? As a mom and dietitian, I am not the least bit caught off guard with this. The issue is that we as parents need to rethink what we are offering our kids as their go-to “snack foods.” Instead of processed foods with little nutritional value, we need to remember that snacks are not only intended to curb appetite between meals but also to fill in the nutritional gaps in our diets. This is a particularly important concept to capitalize on when it comes to choosing snack foods for our kids, taking the pressure off of meal times alone to give our children what their growing bodies need.
  4. Fill in nutritional gaps first. Children need a variety of nutrients in order to grow and develop appropriately. One of the best ways to ensure you are filling these nutritional gaps is to target key food groups and nutrients with snacks. Consider how many servings of food from each food group your child needs each day (see the MyPlate guide for preschoolers here), then work backward to see how you could use snacks to make sure they are getting a well-rounded diet.
  5. Combine needed nutrients. While starchy crackers or “empty” snack options may be made available on occasion, aim to pair snack foods that both fuel and fill kids on a more consistent basis. Establishing this as a norm also equips our kids as children to rethink what constitutes a “snack food” altogether. Consider the nutrients children often lack the most (like calcium, vitamin D, iron, and omega fatty acids) and then find real food sources that help your child eat more of those foods instead of ones that offer little to no nutritional value. A kid-friendly favorite in our house is this chia pudding + topping bar.

As you establish these snacking habits for your family, share with your child the changes you are making and why. Put them in place gradually to improve how they respond to the transition and as much as possible, to engage them in the process. Model how you adopt these healthy habits as well so that the changes become something the whole family can share in and enjoy together.