Growing children need snacks throughout the day to promote healthy physical, mental and emotional development. Working with at-risk after school programs, we typically see two main issues when it comes to snacking. There is either no access to food, especially supplemental food like after school snacks, or the food that is available is highly processed and unhealthy, like vending machine food, for example. Children who do not have access to snacks between meals could suffer from malnutrition, bad behavior, inability to focus, and a long list of other issues. Those who eat unhealthy foods everyday are receiving excess calories but not enough nutrients.
We put together this guide to snacking to help you navigate healthy snacking practices in your home, school, or after school program.
School age children go through different phases of growth, meaning they need varying amounts of food to meet their body's energy and nutrient needs at any given time. At some points during their development kids need lots of food, and during others they require less. For this reason, it's important to have food available for kids, but never make them "clean their plate." Allow your children to decide for themselves when they are full. One important way to ensure they are eating enough is to give them enough time to do so. Often times the reason kids do not eat enough of their food is because they don't have enough time, e.g. 15-20 minute lunch periods. Set a specific "snack time" and limit the amount of distractions available during this time. For a snack, we suggest about 20 minutes of congregate-style feeding.
Offering a variety of items is another key factor to healthy snacking. Kids need nutrients from all five food groups - grains, fruits, vegetables, dairy and protein. Keeping options on hand from all of these categories is a great way to help kids make nutritious snack choices. See the chart below (via University of Nebraska - Lincoln) for some ideas of snack options from each food group:
Not all households and after school programs have the means to purchase an abundance of snacking options, which is why programs like Three O'clock Project exist. We offer a two-component snack for after school programs, consisting of fresh fruit and varying options from the other four food groups. TOP delivers these items,
prepackaged and ready to serve, directly to our programs everyday.
Contact us for more information about our existing programs, or if you would like to set up a snack program at your after school site!
Our final suggestion is to be a good example of what healthy snacking looks like. Eat a variety of foods from each category around your kids. Talk to them about it. Tell them why you are choosing carrots and popcorn over honey buns and cheetos. Always keep the conversation focused on health and nutrition, and never on weight or beauty. You are setting an example, so set an awesome one!
Healthy snacking is an essential element of childhood nutrition. To help your kids make the best decisions for themselves, allow kids to decide what & how much they want to eat, offer a variety of options, allow enough time for them to eat, and finally, be a healthy snacking role model! Now that you've gotten a crash course in snacking, we challenge you to take what you've learned to the kids in your life. Let us know how you plan to implement healthier snacking habits in the comment section below!