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The "Mommy I'm Hungry" Guide to Healthy Snacks for Kids
"Mommy, I'm hungry!" The words are a never ending mantra in most households with young children. Bellies never seem to fill. It's easy to grab prepackaged snacks to busy hands, keep the kitchen clean, and save our sanity.
But prepackaged snacks often come with unhealthy labels. High sugar content to make them appealing, high fat content to make them palatable, and of course, the combination leads to a high calorie content. Diabetes and obesity are on the rise in America. And don't forget that childhood nemesis...food allergies. Whether your child is the one with allergies, or you're just hosting an allergy friendly playdate for one of their friends here are a few simple tricks to filling hungry tummies and leaving them with a smile.
Not all of the snacks listed below are appropriate for all allergens. And keep in mind the trick that marketers have known for generations. IT's all in the presentation. A sliced apple presented on a plate layered with cheese slices is going to vanish much more quickly than a shiny red one served with a package of string cheese. Use raisins or chocolate chips or olives to turn open faced sandwiches or dips into faces. Get creative when cutting things up. Or at least use fun bowls. Cut fruit is much tastier out of a juice glass, or even a wider mouthed wine glass. Use pretty cups, kebob sticks, and teensy tiny appetizer forks to make things more appealing.
Fruit 'em Up
Fruit. Yes, it's high in sugar. But, it's good, raw form sugar. And it's high in fiber, too, which helps to minimize the impact on hyperactivity levels. Fruits are also full of vitamins and minerals, and those all essential anti-oxidants that even fight cancer.
Kid friendly fruits include:
- Grapes (Rinse and keep in the fridge. A paper towel in the bottom of the container helps to keep them fresh longer. If your hungry tots are toddlers, split or quarter the grapes so they aren't a choking hazard) As an extra special treat, grapes can be frozen.
- Berries. What kid doesn't love brightly colored, festive berries? Raspberries and blackberries have a ton of seeds and are less friendly to taste buds that are accustomed to sugary so-called fruit snack gummies. But strawberries are loved by young and old, and can be dipped in sugar for a special treat. (At least they're high in fiber and Vitamin C) Any berry can be served with custard or whipped cream if there are no egg or dairy allergies. There are also a few allergy friendly whipped cream options.
- Melon. Diced, balled or sliced into spears, Melon appeals to kids of all ages. You can even cut thin slices of watermelon and use a cookie cutter to make them even more fun.
- Apples. Apples are easier to eat if they are pre sliced. You can purchase pre-sliced apples at the supermarket, or be environmentally friendly and just invest in a slicer/corer. If there are no allergies present serve apple slices with dip. Need some ideas? Peanut butter (thinned with milk), Sunflower seed butter, Cream cheese or cream cheese substitute whizzed with brown sugar and cinnamon, ranch dressing. Ranch dressing?!? Um, yeah. My kids are weird. But I love them. And their friends like it too.
- Citrus. You can buy cans of mandarin oranges, or mini tangerines, or 'cuties'. You can slice up oranges. Skip the grapefruit.
- Bananas. These can be dipped in melted chocolate, added to a fruit salad with lots of citrus in it, or simply enjoyed out of the peel. Look for ones that are just starting to get spotty, start the peeling process and hand them over to your kids to pretend they are monkeys.
What is your child's favorite veggie?
Kids will eat more veggies if they're readily available. Once a week, or twice a month, set aside some time to chop veggies. Fill a nice big tray with carrot sticks, celery sticks, cherry tomatoes, bell pepper slices, radishes, and pods of snap peas. After school, set it out on the table for an hour with a small bowl of hummus or your favorite salad dressing. (Most kids are partial to ranch) The kids will snack on their favorites because they're there, readily available and anything else is hidden away in a cupboard. You'll find yourself eating more veggies, too.
Kids can eat veggies. And, with these tips, they'll ask for seconds. Keep the smelling salts handy the next time Grandma comes to visit.
- Carrots. Serve them long, with green leaves still attached at the end and suggest the kids pretend they are bunnies. Or hand them a scrubbed carrot and the veggie peeler. They'll love eating a carrot they helped prep. If long carrots aren't their thing, serve them grated in little mountains on their plate. Or go the boring, old fashioned route and put out some carrot sticks with dip. (see below)
- Celery. Celery may look boring and green, but it has a unique crescent shape that makes it an ideal base for fun food sculpting. Make little celery boats stuffed with hummus or seed or nut butter. Add chocolate chip or raisin ants. Use bell pepper strips for flag poles. Get creative!
- Bell peppers. They're bright, and cheerful. Use them to make flags or just stuff them full of hummus and olives.
- Snap Peas: Kids are partial to things they take part in making. Plant a few pea seedlings and send the kids out to harvest them. The ones that don't make it into the house will at least make it into the kids.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes, like snap peas, are easy to grow and fun to eat off the vine. Grow cherry tomatoes. You'll probably end up with enough to feed the neighborhood, which means your neighbor's kids might end up eating a few extra veggies, too.
Whole Grains for Whole Kids
Sometimes you just can't escape carbs. They're quick. They're easy. And as the basis of the food pyramid, they can be healthy. Just choose higher quality carbohydrate snacks, like whole grain crackers that were baked, not fried.
- Crackers: If you aren't gluten free, look for woven wheat varieties. No sugar, just whole grains. If you are gluten free, look for brown rice flour or corn crackers. Check the fiber content.
- Cereal: Avoid the kid-designated cereals. They're mostly sugar and trumped up dessert foods. Look for whole grains, and make trail mix with whole grain O shapes, or shredded style squares, and a few handfuls of dried fruit and/or nuts. Add some chocolate chips or just a few of the sugary shapes for fun.
- Chips: What kid doesn't want to devour a bag of chips? What adult, for that matter, can resist? Chips don't have to be off the table, but should be limited. And look for baked varieties, try something new like Apple chips or Sweet Potato chips for a little more nutrition in your crunch.
- Toast: Toast is a veritable snack food. Top with nut or seed butter, and use whole grain bread.
- Popcorn: It's not nutritionally dense, but it does have fiber and not a lot of fat if prepared without butter. It's another quick, non sugary carb for the family that doesn't have any corn allergies.
- Roll it up: Use whole grain tortillas to roll up lunchmeats or dips for an on-the-go snack with staying power. Kids like the tube-shape. Parents like that it's as nutritious as a sandwich.
- Bake it Yourself: Get kids involved in the kitchen, replace some or all of the flour in your favorite muffin recipe with whole grain varieties. Slip in some veggies or dried fruit. They'll be eating healthy and think they're getting a treat at the same time!
Bring Back Breakfast
Ever notice how breakfast foods tend to be quick and easy to grab? Just like a snack should be? Well, why should all those delicious, and healthful, breakfast foods be reserved for early morning consumption? When the kids get hungry, pull out the yoghurt, the waffles, the cereal...But ditch the donuts: I know I said that breakfast is good for on the go kids, but donuts aren't breakfast. They are dessert. Try a mini whole wheat bagel instead. Top with a sweetened cream cheese if you need sugar.
- Yoghurt: Yoghurt has calcium, protein and live cultures for healthy tummies. Avoid the brightly colored concoctions that pass as kids-food and grab a few grown up varieties, or the little tubs designed for toddlers. Or, if you are really feeling adventurous, buy a whole tub of unsweetened yoghurt and let the kids add their own jelly flavoring. Or honey. Or maple syrup. Or just berries and cereal. They'll have a blast and maybe end up with less sugar content than the store bought versions.
- Oatmeal: Instant oatmeal has a lot of sugar, but old fashioned oats cook up just as quickly int he microwave. So do other grains for gluten free households. Use raisins to make a smiley face and mix the sugar with some cinnamon, or use brown sugar so a little goes a long way (and is obvious when you sprinkle it in)
- Eggs: No, I'm not saying you should scramble up a mess of eggs each time they get hungry. But deviled eggs keep well, and hard boiled eggs served with salt and pepper are fun to crack, peel and eat. At least, they can be. Ask any fan of . Ramona Quimby
As you can see, healthy snack options are abundant. However, kids will only eat what's available. If quick fix, sugary snacks are easier to grab then veggie sticks or apple slices, they'll stick to the quick fixes. (Be honest, as a parent, when you're tired, which are you more likely to offer? Cupboard freedom, or to go slice up a watermelon?)
If you really want kids to snack healthfully, you need to make healthy snacks easier to access than junk food...for the entire family. So when you stock up on produce, spend an hour slicing it all up and sticking it in airtight containers or even in single serving sizes. This makes it easy to divvy up into lunch boxes, and easy to grab and go at snack time. Stop buying junk food completely, or limit your purchases to once a month. When it's gone, it's gone and you're all 'forced' to eat the good stuff. Maybe you'll be surprised at how long those potato chips last when trail mix is available.
And lastly, make that trail mix available! Sit down with your kids and half a dozen mini tupperware containers. Let them create whatever flavor combinations they want out of whole grain cereals and dried fruit. Cranberries, raisins, blueberries, pineapple, and honey nut o's? Sure, why not? Just make sure they don't add mostly chocolate chips. Put out a bowl of marshmallows or candy pieces for color and excitement, but make sure the mixes are mostly grain and fruit.
Hungry kids usually eat. As long as we, as parents, limit their choices to healthy options, they'll make good choices. If your family is used to having prepackaged cookies and chips and sodas available, there may be some balking at first, but they will come around, especially if you involve them in the process and don't eliminate their old favorites entirely.
If you're really struggling to get kids to eat well, give them one unhealthy snack a day. Put it in a box with the rest of the healthy options, and tell them they can have whatever they want, but once it's gone it's gone. If they have no other choice, they'll learn to budget that bag of chips. And they might even find out they prefer crunchy apples with peanut butter to a soggy cereal bar.
You might find your own health improving, too. After all, it's not fair to ask your kids to eat veggies when you're still munching on snack cakes. And you'll rediscover how flavorful fresh produce can be. Eat well, live well, and snack well. Just keep it wholesome.