One of the most popular riffs of childhood is I’m hungry, usually set to a plaintive whine and occurring at any time except mealtime. Rail against our kids’ penchant for snacking if you will, but it’s worth acknowledging that kids’ snacks have their purpose and place. Children have smaller stomachs and need more energy than adults, a double whammy that accounts for their frequent bursts of hunger.
“Going for six hours between meals without eating is not good for kids, who tend to need something to eat every three or four hours,” says Boulder, Colo.-based registered dietitian Jane Reagan, who specializes in child nutrition and was actively involved in developing the district’s first nutrition wellness standards.
The increase in snacking over the last decade—which now accounts for more than 27 percent of daily caloric intake in children—means that snacks should be a significant source of nutrition, not an excuse for sugary treats and salty blowouts. Instead of resisting the snack habit, embrace it by giving your child healthy snacks that boost their brainpower and sustain their energy levels. Thoughtful snacks, coupled with not skipping breakfast and having lunch and dinner at consistent times, can make a “miraculous” difference in your child’s mood, adds Reagan. Read on for more of Reagan’s tips for mindful munching.
Omega-3 fatty acid rich foods are essential for healthy brain functioning, and “pretty much everyone tends to be deficient in them,” says Reagan. Both the plant-based form, alpha-linolenic-acid (ALA), and the animal-based forms, such as eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA) and docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), can provide a dramatic, nutrient-dense infusion.
Walnuts are the only nuts with ALA, but flax, pumpkin, sunflower and sesame seeds, as well as soybeans, also have significant amounts of ALA. Certain peanut butter brands are fortified with flax seeds, or you can entice your kid to try sunflower butter or tahini, a paste made from sesame seeds. For animal sources of omega-3s, salmon ranks at the top, and its mild flavor appeals even to toddlers.
Omega-3 snack boosters:
- Celery sticks with flax-fortified peanut butter, topped with raisins
- Cereal with soy milk
- Trail mix with added walnuts
- Half a bagel with smoked salmon
- Salmon jerky
- A couple spoonfuls of ground flax seeds mixed in to a smoothie
Protein is another major player in the nutrition big leagues, says Reagan. It helps prevent blood sugar crashes, so try including some protein or fat whenever the snack urge hits. Doing so slows down the body’s absorption of calories, giving you a steadier energy supply. Plus, protein and fat tend to give you a level of satiety that pure carbs can’t, thus fending off constant grazing.
Protein snacks for steady energy:
- Apple slices and cheese
- Bananas spread with almond butter
- Roasted chickpeas
- Peaches with plain Greek yogurt
- Carrot sticks with hummus
- Turkey jerky and red pepper slices-
- Hard-boiled egg with toasted nori strips
Finally, tempting as it is to proffer milk and cookies to ward away the blues, Reagan advises parents to be aware of the following “brain drainers” (innocuous as they may seem):
- Fruit juice, which can have as much sugar as soda
- Fruited yogurts
- Refined white flour products
- Dehydration (make sure your kids have access to drinking water throughout the day)