When First Lady Michelle Obama and the USDA wanted to raise the healthy standards associated with the National School Lunch Program, they had effectively enacted the first revisions in 15 years. These changes not only affected school breakfast and lunch, but also the snack programs for the after-school activities that provide enrichment and educational activities. If your kids are participating in a qualifying program at their school, then they are receiving snacks that adhere to these guidelines.
If not, you may need ideas for snacks to stock up on at home. Healthy snacking not only satisfies hunger between meals, it can improve concentration during homework or extracurricular activities, and prevent overeating at meal time. So start with these yummy suggestions from four experts: Louise Goldberg, a registered dietitian, pediatric nutrition specialist, Ashley Pettit, a wellness expert and fitness chef, Dr. Douglas Graham, author of "the 80/10/10 Diet", and Kelly Parthen, co-owner of Bean Sprouts Cafe and Cooking School and co-author of "Bean-Appétit: Healthy Ways to Have Fun with Food". They will provide your child with a healthy stepping stone on the way to dinner.
Kids shouldn't drink carbonated soft drinks or sugary drinks -- especially right after school when it's hours before dinner. Hard sugar crashes when your kids are already worn out aren't something any parent wants. The best drink for kids is plain ole water. Water satisfies thirst, with no added calories or sugar. The next best option, and a great hold-over food until meal time, is non-fat or low-fat milk. If your little ones are craving a sweet drink, try 100-percent fruit juices in small doses or diluted with water.
You can also fill kids up with smoothies featuring raw fruits, low-fat milk or yogurt and even veggies. Pettit created a pineapple perfection smoothie that is ideal for after-school brain power. Blend one and a half cups sliced pineapple, a quarter cup of light coconut milk and half of a medium banana for a great drink.
Nuts and Trail Mixes
If your child doesn't have a nut allergy, unsalted nuts are a great after-school snack, full of healthy fats with easy-to-gauge, handful-sized portions. Nuts are also yummy in trail mixes with dried fruits or in granola bars. Avoid most pre-made trail mixes, which may be high in sugar, salt and processed food. Instead, try making a homemade version. "Let your kids pick out what dried fruit and nuts or seeds he/she wants, like dried mango, dried pineapple, almonds, pistachios or pumpkin seeds," says Goldberg. And always be careful of portion size. Trail mix can easily be high in calories, so Goldberg recommends keeping it to 1/4 cup (about 2 tablespoons each of fruit and nuts).
Cheese and Yogurt
Dairy products are a great source of calcium, but are also high in saturated fat. Give your kids low-fat or fat-free dairy options, such as cheese sticks, string cheese, cheese snacks, yogurt and cottage cheese. Add fresh fruits, nuts or veggies to round out the snack.
Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits and vegetables are great sources for getting vitamins A, B and C and fiber. Keep produce as raw as possible. If you must use canned fruits and veggies, purchase ones that are packed in water, not heavy syrup. Cut up fruits and veggies, place them in small containers or baggies, and make them easily accessible in the refrigerator as a quick grab-and-go. Create fruit kabobs and include a yogurt dip or a peanut-butter spread if needed.
Celery and dates are a great combination for an after-school snack. Cut celery stalks into one-inch pieces and put half of a medjool date into the curve of the celery. "Even if your child doesn't typically eat celery, she will probably ask for seconds and thirds of this treat," says Graham.
You can also add fruits and veggies to a small after-school soup or gazpacho. Try Graham's simple recipe for tomato-mango soup, which combines the vitamins, fiber and nutrients of fruits and vegetables with the sweetness of the fruit. "Any ratio of mango and tomato will work just fine," says Graham. "Blend or mix the two ingredients in any way you wish: coarse, fine, pureed smooth or chunky. Start with any variety of tomato that you enjoy, and a non-stringy variety of mango, such as Keitt or Kent. Blend in roughly equal quantities to your desired coarseness and serve." You can also add a little lime to the mix for a citrus-y pop.
Whole Grain Snacks
For healthy digestion, snacks and carbohydrates that are rich in whole grain are great for kids' after-school snacks because they are high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Fill your pantry with whole-grain pretzels, crackers, chips and tortillas. Granola is also a great add-in for fruit and yogurt.
Peanut, fruit and soy butters are all great spreads to use on fruit, veggies and whole grain snacks. Add a nut butter, such as peanut, almond or cashew, to whole-grain crackers or on top of apple slices. Nut butters usually hold up in room temperature without needing refrigeration. If your child has an allergy or his school is nut-free, use soy nut butter or sunflower seed butter, which is considered nut-free. Spread one to two tablespoons of nut butter inside half of a whole-wheat pita and add sliced grapes or bananas (sprinkle with a little orange or lemon juice to prevent browning). You can also do this using a corn or small flour tortilla and rolling it up -- look for tortillas with at least three grams of fiber to satisfy a little longer.
Spreads and Dips
Dips are often high in fat and calories -- not the best snack, even when paired with veggies. Try spreads such as guacamole, hummus or Vegenaise on wraps, sandwiches and whole grain snacks. You can also use Vegenaise instead of mayo to mix in with canned tuna or chicken chunks for sandwiches. Use hummus instead of ranch dressing as dips for veggies and whole grain pita bread.
Cereal bars can be a great snack to pick up on the go and they come in a lot of varieties. But as Goldberg warns, "Some of these have more sugar than a candy bar, so read the labels carefully." You should look for ones with about five grams of protein, three grams of fiber and under 200 calories. Avoid any that list a form of sugar as the first two ingredients, which can be written on labels as a sugar, a syrup or a word that has "-ose" at the end (like sucrose, fructose, dextrose or maltose).
Instead of a cereal bar, give your child a half a cup of dry whole grain cereal that has 10 grams or less of sugar per serving and at least three grams of fiber, such as Barbara's Puffins.
Popcorn is an excellent whole-grain after-school snack when served plain and air popped. It's low in calories but high in fiber and antioxidants. You can even take your favorite popcorn and create a snack with a twist. Try Pettit's recipe for popcorn balls: Take 1/2 cup of popcorn (separated into four servings) and two tablespoons of your nut butter of choice. Divide the butter into four servings and roll it into balls with the popcorn for tiny, fun popcorn balls.
Pretzels are not only inexpensive, but they are a low-calorie food. Look for salt-free and whole-grain options to keep sodium levels down. When paired with fruit, cheese, nuts and other snacks, they are great options in snack mixes. And they are great for dipping in nut butters.
Enjoy these snacks with your kids all year round, switching out seasonal ingredients from your local farmers' market. They should satisfy your little ones and hold off the cries of "What's for Dinner?"...at least for five minutes.
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Heather Buen is a social media and communications consultant, as well as a mother of three, who has lived in the Dallas-Fort Worth area of Texas for over ten years. She covers all things family and has experience as both a writer and single mom. Her work can be found here.