By Dale Wallis
Weekdays can be hectic, with breakfasts that are often rushed as everyone grabs a bite before heading to work or school—even if that means heading to different rooms in the house. No matter where your kids are, you still want to provide healthy snacks for school that can boost children’s energy levels between meals and propel them through their days.
Grabbing processed snacks may seem like the easiest option, but many of them provide little to nothing in the way of nutrition while swamping young bodies in sugar, corn syrup, salt and trans fats. One study in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics examined the contents of lunchboxes carried by more than 600 Massachusetts schoolchildren; the typical snack paired a sugary beverage with a packaged food.
“Cracker-type snacks tend to get digested quickly and fade really quickly,” explains Jill Castle, MS, RDN, co-author of Fearless Feeding: How to Raise Healthy Eaters from High Chair to High School (Jossey-Bass). “We know from research that protein quenches the appetite better and keeps them fuller longer, and healthy fats do the same.”
Easy, Nutritious Snack Ideas
In the spirit of helping a child succeed in the classroom and beyond, it seems that healthy snacks can play a large role. So what kind of simple, yet nutritious snacks can busy parents tuck into their child’s backpack on their way out the door?
Castle’s go-to snacks include:
- A banana with peanut butter for dipping
- Whole-grain cereal mixed with trail mix or peanuts, raisins, dried cherries and chocolate chips
- An all-natural granola bar with a piece of fruit
- Cheese sticks with fresh fruit
- Cheese or peanut butter with whole-grain crackers for mini-sandwiches
- Carrots and hummus
Stacey Antine, MS, RD, author of Appetite for Life (HarperOne), recommends::
- Homemade healthy muffins, such as banana chocolate chip
- Grapes, cheese chunks and whole-grain crackers
Kelly Walunis, a mother and a manager for Bozeman, Montana’s Community Food Co-op, suggests:
- Hard-boiled eggs
- Dried apple or pineapple rings, or other dried fruits without added sugar
- Avocado halves
“Every day is a new opportunity to help your children choose a healthier lifestyle, starting with really good food,” says Antine. Learning to reach for high-quality snacks instead of sugary junk is crucial to that process.
Little Bodies, Little Meals
Parents need to think outside of the box—or the packaging—to come up with nutritional snacks that kids love and can eat on the go. In doing so, Castle tends to look to the food groups that are listed on the USDA’s My Plate chart—fruits, vegetables, grains, protein and dairy. She recommends covering a combination of two to three of these groups for each snack time.
“Think of it like a little meal, holding blood sugar up for a period of time, but also offering kids a lot of nutrition,” Castle says. “Kids need over 40 nutrients per day, including vitamins and minerals, so snacks have to count.”
Walunis tends to stay away from processed food snacks to avoid the added sugar, fat and salt. Instead, she looks for a variety of colors and proteins.
“I think, ‘Does she have a green vegetable somewhere in her snacks? Is there something orange? What has protein?” Walunis explains. “I don’t avoid bread or high-carbohydrate foods, but I don’t seek them out either, because I feel that my daughter gets enough through provided snacks, whether it’s from the school or at a friend’s house.”
As far as how many snacks kids should eat each day, Castle says that it depends on a child’s stage of development. Preschoolers need about three snacks, school-aged kids need two or three, and teenagers should have one or two. She says the typical school-aged child should eat every three to four hours, consuming 100 to 200 calories per snack.
“Kids have smaller stomachs than adults, so they need to eat smaller meals more often,” Walunis says. “Healthy snacking promotes future healthy nutrition, which in turn prevents obesity and the diseases that go along with that.”
Castle adds, “Their bodies will be fueled, their brains will function well, their appetites will be satisfied and the snacks will be contributing to their daily nutritional needs.”
When it comes to choosing nutritious foods, Antine, founder of HealthBarn USA, likes to frame snacks in a different way for children. Instead of referring to a food as being “healthy,” a term that may make a potato chip-loving child run the other way, she likes to talk about where snacks come from—a factory or nature.
“Kids don’t want to be duped, so why not teach them the truth about food, and the difference between natural ingredients and artificial ingredients?” Antine says. “I ask them, ‘Does it come from nature, did it grow in the ground or come from an animal?’”
In her health-based education programs, Antine teaches kids to read labels and empowers them with the knowledge they need to make practical food choices. “Once you talk about food in a way that they can understand, they start to question the foods they are eating,” she says.
Besides fueling children’s growing bodies, healthy snacks can make it easier for them to learn. Trying to keep kids engaged over a full day of school is not always an easy task under the best of circumstances; put them on a sugar high and they are likely to experience a nasty crash. “Kids can get jacked up on juice or pretzels and spike from sugars, getting this rush where they feel ‘up’ and then come crashing down and are starving,” Antine explains. “Think about people who have to manage children’s learning every day; by sending poor snacks, we make it harder.”
You gave your children new notebooks and pens. Giving them the tools to stay healthy completes your family’s back-to-school checklist.
Healthy Snack Recipes
Chocolate Chickpea Chippers
The folks at HealthBarn USA say, “We know what you’re thinking—cookies made with chickpeas? But these cookies are a delicious, healthy alternative to traditional chocolate chip cookies.”
1 cup old-fashioned rolled oats
1 cup whole wheat flour
2 tbsp ground flaxseeds
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp sea salt
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup unsweetened applesauce
3/4 cup low-sodium canned chickpeas, mashed
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly grease two baking sheets.
- Combine oats, flour, flaxseeds, baking soda and salt in a medium mixing bowl.
- In a large bowl, beat together sugar and applesauce until smooth. Add mashed chickpeas, egg and vanilla; combine.
- Add dry ingredients to wet ingredients in small batches, mixing thoroughly. Fold in chocolate chips.
- Using rounded tablespoons, drop cookies onto greased baking sheets. Bake 12-15 minutes or until golden brown. Cool 1-2 minutes and then transfer cookies to wire racks.
Yields 30 cookies
The Barn Bar
According to HealthBarn USA, “Our delicious Barn Bar is high in heart-healthy fats and fiber, and contains easy-to-read ingredients. It’s especially good as a morning school snack.”
2 cups old-fashioned oats
2/3 cup ground flaxseeds
1/3 cup hulled raw sunflower seeds
1/4 cup raisins (or dried cranberries)
3 tbsp brown sugar
1 large egg, beaten
½ cup maple syrup
½ cup canola oil
- Preheat oven to 325°F. Line 13 x 9” metal baking pan with foil extending 2” over short sides of pan. Grease foil.
- In large bowl, combine oats, flaxseeds, sunflower seeds, raisins and sugar. Stir in egg, maple syrup and oil until well mixed. Transfer mixture to prepared pan and with wet hand, press into an even layer.
- Bake 25-30 minutes or until golden brown. Cool in pan on wire rack.
- Once cool, use foil to transfer to cutting board. With serrated knife, cut lengthwise into 8 strips, then cut each strip crosswise in half.
Yields 16 bars
Source for both recipes: HealthBarn USA (healthbarnusa.com)