After-school snack time was something I always looked forward to in elementary school. I was usually able to choose my own snack for the day, and it gave me just enough energy to get through swim practice or dance class before dinner. If your children eat a midmorning or after-school snack, have you thought about what options you are providing and how much you are serving? What separates a snack from a meal, anyway? To break down snacking, we have to look at the time of day, the quantity of food being eaten and the quality of the snack.
Having a snack schedule for your children is a great way to avoid overeating. Depending on what your child’s schedule looks like, you can decide when the best time for a healthy “pick-me-up” will be. Maybe your child takes an afternoon nap but would benefit from a midmorning snack, or your older child has extracurricular activities after school that push back dinnertime. Talking with your children about their hunger levels throughout the day will help you create a set schedule and teach your children about hunger cues.
The size of a snack is extremely important when we’re looking at the age of your children. Younger children might benefit from smaller portions more often due to the size of their stomach while older children will be able to prepare their snack themselves based on their level of hunger. Snacks are meant to supplement meals rather than replace them. Being aware of the food groups the snack belongs to will help you decide on a portion size. If children choose a snack high in protein like meat or peanut butter, they will feel fuller faster and most likely need a smaller portion of that snack. Snacks are the best way for children to refuel their bodies between meals. The quantity of a chosen snack depends on if it is well-timed. Snacks are encouraged to be offered about 2 hours before a meal because waiting any longer could have an effect on how much children eat at the next meal. Overall, the best way to decide on the size of a snack should be to trust your child’s appetite. Children can be picky eaters. Some days they eat a lot, and some days they do not. A hungry child will usually ask for more if they want it!
Like I mentioned, my mom usually let me pick my own snack once I reached school age. From my background in child development I know how important it is for independence during this age and also for preschoolers. Sometimes I would choose a granola bar or apple slices and peanut butter, but most times I wanted to grab a candy bar or go to my favorite fast food restaurant. Allowing your children to pick their own snacks becomes easier when you keep an abundance of healthy options in your home. Fresh cut fruits and vegetables, low-fat cheeses and yogurt, and whole-wheat crackers or pretzels are quick and easy to grab and take on the go. For preschoolers, I recommend providing two to three options for them to choose from before snack time. Presenting preschoolers with a few options gives you the choice on what to serve while giving them the sense of control and independence they desire. Establishing healthy habits starts in the home. What you buy and eat has the greatest effect on the decisions your children make when it comes to eating smart. As your children get older, the less input you have on their eating decisions. Role modeling is a powerful tool, but education on healthy options will stick with your children as they gain more independence. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food & Nutrition Guide recommends growing food together in a family garden, shopping for groceries with your children, and cooking together in the kitchen as some of the best ways to learn about food with your children. For younger children, I have complied a list of books that address food and can be a starting point to get the conversation going.
The Beastly Feast by Bruce Goldstone
Bread Bread Bread by Ann Morris
It’s a Sandwich! by Roberta L. Duyff and Patricia C. McKissack
Two eggs, please. by Sarah Weeks and Betsy Lewin
Lunch by Denise Fleming
Growing Vegetable Soup by Lois Ehlert
I love these books because they touch on gardening, different cultures, a variety of fruits and vegetables, and eating together as a family. Books like this can be easily incorporated into nighttime routines and serve as an encouraging way to learn about food! Visit choosemyplate.gov for more tips on smart snacking. Happy snacking!
Duyff, Roberta L. Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics Complete Food & Nutrition Guide. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company, 2017.
This article was submitted by Natalie Perry, Child Development Specialist Student Intern at the LSU AgCenter.