Do you feed your kids a wholesome breakfast, pack them a nutritious lunch, and cook them a healthy dinner most days of the week? Gold star for you. Now, how about their snacks? If this is where your rock-star parenting slides a bit — where the added sugar rises, where the ingredients are read a little less closely — you’re not alone. Many parents, busy with work, house upkeep, after-school activities, and prepping meals, don’t have the time or energy to serve up healthy snacks. It’s much easier to just toss the kid a few crackers and call it good.
The problem with that, though, is kids need healthy fuel between meals, not just empty calories and added sugar — which is exactly what they’ll get from cookies, “fruit” snacks, and potato chips. “I’m not saying these foods are always bad, but if your child is hungry and they eat just carbs, they might stay full for a little bit, but they’ll be hungry in an hour,” Wesley Delbridge, food and nutrition director for the Chandler Unified School District in Phoenix, told Fatherly. “In fact, they’ll probably feel worse because their blood sugar went up and then crashed.”
By contrast, a nutritious snack will not spike blood sugar but will supply essential nutrients and keep kids full until their next meal. “Ideally, it’ll have a balance of protein, carbohydrates, fiber, and a little fat,” Delbridge says. “Think of it almost like a mini-meal.” You may not hit every one of these nutrients with each and every snack, and that’s OK, so long as you hit two or three.
If you’re a time-crunched dad, all this may sound daunting. Don’t worry: Offering healthy snacks requires a lot less work than you may think. “You don’t you have to go, ‘Joey is going to have celery and peanut butter at 10 a.m. and apples and cheese at 2 p.m.,’” Delbridge says. “That may work for some families, but it’ll make other parents burn out.”
All you really need to do is keep your fridge and cupboards stocked with an array of healthy items that kids can combine in different ways. This will keep snacks new and fresh, and teach them to make healthy choices. “I have bins in my fridge devoted entirely to components of snack-making — fresh veggies, various dips, and different protein, fat, and fiber sources,” Delbridge says. “Then I let them pick and choose.” Here are dietitian-approved snack components that kids can eat anytime.
Delbridge is a big fan of yogurt. “It’s a dairy source so it has lots of calcium,” he says. “Plus, yogurt is high in protein to help with satiety, and it provides probiotics, which are great for the gut.” No matter what kind you buy, Jessica Gust, RDN, MS, owner of Element Nutrition in San Luis Obispo, California, recommends making plain the default at home versus flavored to minimize the added sugars. “There are all kinds of things you can add to yogurt to make it fun, such as fruit, whole-grain cereal, cocoa powder, or coconut flakes,” she says. For those flavored yogurts, read the sugar content on the label and compare among brands, avoiding any that have added sugars listed on the nutritional label.
This one is obvious: Let your little ones munch away on vitamin- and mineral-packed carrots, celery, sugar snap peas, broccoli, cauliflower, and other fresh veggies. “I like that they fill kids up with lots of fiber,” Delbridge says. “But the key word is fresh. Sometimes when I tell people they can have free reign on vegetables, they think any preparation is fine and they’ll add a bunch of oil, salt, and cheese.” He says steamed vegetables, such as edamame, also make for fantastic snacks.
To add a little protein and fat to veggies, Delbridge suggests hummus, almond butter, guacamole, or homemade ranch dip made with yogurt. Just be mindful of dips and dressings that are high in sugar and salt. Barbeque sauce and honey mustard dressing, for instance, are often loaded with sugar.
The same rule that applies to vegetables applies to fresh fruit — let them have at it. While fruit is sweet and (naturally) sugary, the fiber found in whole fruit helps offset that. Besides supplying fiber, fresh fruit offers a boatload of vitamins and minerals, and healthy, slow-digesting carbs, making it a fantastic snack. “I never tell parents you need to serve this fruit or that fruit,” says Gust. “It’s important to mix it up and expose kids to a variety of different kinds. Focus on varying colors and textures. Maybe one snack involves blueberries and the next involves apples.”
All nuts are chock-full of protein, fiber, vitamin E, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and Omega-3s — all nutrients kids need. “Walnuts, almonds, pistachios, cashews — I like all nuts and am a big proponent of variety,” Gust says. The caveat with nuts is they’re high in calories and fat. But because of the protein, fiber, and fat, it doesn’t take many nuts to fill kids up.
As a guideline, Delbridge says a handful of nuts is usually plenty. And as kids’ hands grow, that portion size will grow proportionally. Also, choose raw and unsalted nuts over those roasted in oils. Finally, since nut allergies have become common in children, if yours haven’t tried a certain nut before, give them their first taste at home or somewhere that emergency health care is accessible just in case they have an allergic reaction.
Gust encourages working a whole grain into snacks to supply fiber, B vitamins, magnesium, and slow-digesting carbs. This could be a whole-grain tortilla, crackers, cereal, bread, or unsweetened oatmeal. Just be sure to read labels to watch for added salt and sugar.
Another great option: air-popped popcorn. “Many people don’t realize popcorn is a whole grain, but it’s literally a kernel of corn,” Delbridge says. “The problem is when popcorn is loaded with salt, butter, oil, or sugar, but a small amount of any of those is fine. You can also add cinnamon, herbs, honey — the flavoring possibilities are endless. Just don’t let popcorn be their entire snack. Tell them it’s a bowl full of carbs and they need something else to balance it out.”
Another excellent protein and calcium source, cottage cheese can be eaten plain, piled onto whole-grain crackers, or even used as a dip for fresh veggies. Both Delbridge and Gust give this snack a thumbs-up. Cottage cheese is also rich in vitamin B12 and essential minerals, and it supplies some fat to fill kids’ bellies, about 2.5 grams per cup of 1% milkfat cottage cheese.
Hummus and Bean Spreads
Made from chickpeas, otherwise known as garbanzo beans, hummus is a stellar source of protein and unsaturated fat to satisfy hunger pangs. You can try a similar spread made with black or pinto beans. The best way to watch the salt content is to whip up a big batch of your own that’ll last for many snack sessions. For hummus, you’ll need canned chickpeas, tahini, lemon juice, and a bit of olive oil, salt, and pepper. Try different flavor add-ins such as minced garlic, paprika, roasted red pepper, or pine nuts.