March is National Nutrition Month, when the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics reminds everyone to return to the basics of healthy eating. It is also the time of year when the Academy celebrates expertise of registered dietitian nutritionists as the food and nutrition experts.
Does it seem like it's always snack time? Extracurricular eating abounds. Nearly every after-school activity — from drama to scouts to soccer to German club — involves some type of snacking. Even when kids are at home, many graze throughout the day enjoying a never-ending snack time. So does this mean that kids are eating more than they used to? Yes!
National surveys suggest kids' snacking has nearly doubled since the '70s. Thirty years ago, kids ate roughly 250 calories a day between meals. That jumped to over 400 calories in the '90s and now to about 500 snack calories per day. Unfortunately, the extra snacking has contributed to overweight kids and obesity.
Snacking is Healthy!
So, is snacking bad for children? Definitely not! Snacks can help your kids stay focused at school and on homework, give them needed nutrients and keep the hunger monster at bay, explains Tennessee-based registered dietitian and child nutrition expert Jill Castle, MS, RD. Leave non-nutritious food alone, however. "The definition of snack needs to be redefined," she says.
To lots of kids and teens, a snack is a bag of chips, some cookies or some other nutrient-challenged food. Think of snacks as a mini-meal instead, she encourages. Offer your kids a snack containing protein and fiber, so the snacks are filling, sustaining and add to the quality of the diet. An ounce of pistachios fits the bill with 6 grams of protein and 3 grams of fiber — about the same as an ounce of turkey breast and a small apple.
Snack time is a great time for your kids to enjoy fruits, nuts (for children under the age of 4, nuts may be a choking hazard unless they are finely chopped), vegetables, yogurt and other foods they're not getting at their regular meals, says registered dietitian and former spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Malena Perdomo, MS, RD, CDE. These foods are ideal to help children refuel between meals and satisfy a growing appetite. The best snacking strategy is to be prepared, she adds. Parents should "plan ahead for that hungry tummy."
Be a Smart Snacker
The following guidelines will make you and your family smart snackers:
- Expect smaller children to eat smaller portions. Young children may need more frequent snacks than older kids because little ones have smaller stomachs that hold less.
- Offer meals and snacks at predictable times. State the kitchen is closed at other times.
- To make sure your kids eat at mealtimes, don't offer snacks too close to a meal.
- Discourage mindless munching. Expect your children to sit down to eat their snacks without the distraction of the television, computers and video games.
- Offer nutrient-dense foods that are otherwise lacking in the diet and will improve your child's nutrient intake.
- Try some of these combinations.
- Gorp (trail mix): nuts, dried fruit, whole-grain pretzels and low-sugar dry cereal
- Low-fat cheese and pear slices
- Reduced-sodium deli-sliced turkey breast wrapped around apple slices
- Low-fat yogurt, fruit and nuts
- Nuts and raisins
- Celery sticks filled with almond butter and sprinkled with dried cranberries and chopped pistachios
- Baked tortilla chips dipped in salsa
- Whole-wheat tortilla with reduced-sodium turkey breast and low-fat cheese heated in the microwave