How to Pick Healthy Snack Foods
Keep your child healthy and happy with nutritious snacks.
You know that healthy snack foods are a must if you have children or you care for them. Nutritious foods give your child's body all the materials it needs for healthy growth and development. But choosing snacks can be tricky, because so many so-called nutritious options are actually hiding large doses of sugar, salt, fat and other things you don't want your child filling up on. Arm yourself with these facts, and next time you're in the grocery store you can zero in on the healthy snack foods that will supply the nutrients your child needs.
- So, What's a Healthy Snack?
A healthy snack is one that supplies your child with key nutrients, such as calcium, vitamin C, and fiber. The snack should also be low in fat, sodium and sugar. The first rule of choosing a healthy snack is to serve your child something fresh and whole whenever possible -- which means food that doesn't come in a package. "Always have pre-prepped fruits and vegetables on hand," says Martha Rosenau, a registered dietitian and owner of Peak Nutrition. Rosenau recommends chopping them and storing them at your child's eye level, because children "will eat them if they can see them." For example, according to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), a medium-sized sliced apple supplies 4.4 grams of fiber. Fiber aids in digestion and can make you feel full faster, and according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), children under age 9 should eat between 14 and 20 grams of fiber per day. And the USDA notes that a cup of sliced green bell peppers supplies 74 milligrams of vitamin C and is a great source of iron. According to the CDC, children under 9 should get between 7 and 11 milligrams of iron per day.
Gerri French, a registered dietitian, says that many children "don't eat enough fruits and vegetables." One way to encourage them to eat more fruits and veggies is to mix them with other healthy whole foods. When you serve fruit dipped in plain yogurt, your child gets a good dose of protein and bone-building calcium. Fresh vegetables -- baby carrots, celery sticks and bell pepper strips -- dipped in mild salsa or hummus are always a great option. When fresh produce isn't on hand, Rosenau recommends simple foods like string cheese, low-fat plain yogurt and dehydrated beans and vegetables.
Little one refusing to eat her veggies? Check out Veg Out: Easy Ways to Get Kids to Eat Vegetables.
- What Snacks Are Unhealthy?
French encourages parents to have their children "eat less packaged foods," because foods that come in a package tend to be unhealthy. That doesn't mean there aren't nutritious packaged snacks to be found, but you have to pay close attention to the ingredients. Take granola bars: While some supply key nutrients, such as fiber and vitamin E, most packaged versions also tend to be high in added sugar. Fruit snacks are misleading, as well. Yes, the name has the word "fruit" in it, but most don't contain any actual fruit. Instead, they're made with high fructose corn syrup -- that's all sugar -- and artificial fruit flavorings. Crackers, potato chips, pretzels and packaged popcorn are all low in key nutrients and high in sodium. Foods like chips, which are high in carbs but low in fiber, Rosenau calls "air food": They supply calories but not enough fiber to be a filling snack. French cautions you to pass on the fruit-flavored juice and soda, too -- they're empty calories and don't supply much in the way of nutrition.
- How Do You Choose the Right Ingredients?
Ingredients are key when making your choice of snack for your child. Opt for unprocessed snacks that contain as few ingredients as possible, French recommends, which is why fresh fruits and vegetables are such great choices. The reality is, however, that packaged snacks are necessary sometimes, which is why reading the ingredient labels is so important. If sugar or salt is among the first five ingredients, put that snack back on the shelf -- it isn't going to be your most nutritious option. Skip snacks that "have any ingredients you don't recognize or that you can't pronounce," Rosenau recommends, and look for snacks that contain whole grains as one of the first one or two ingredients.
Sara Ipatenco is a former elementary school teacher turned stay-at-home mom and freelance writer. Ipatenco holds a bachelor's and a master's degree, both in child development and elementary education. Ipatenco has been published in "Teaching Tolerance" and "Family Fun" magazines.