Tips, tricks and advice for shifting your kids to healthier snacks
Last year, my son’s class ate lunch at 11:30 a.m. By the time he got home from school at 4 p.m., he was famished.
My daughter wasn’t far behind, although her big complaint was feeling sluggish in the late afternoons. She said her classroom looked like a bunch of zombies by 2:30 p.m., something akin to the zoned-out students in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.
I had my work cut out for me. Their 4 p.m. snack had to be both nutritious and delicious. Here are some of the things I considered when looking at my options.
There are a couple reasons that using rich-hued fruits and vegetables (and even pistachios!)—like blueberries and carrots—makes for great snacks. They’re colorful, which generally makes kids attracted to them. (Do you think it’s a coincidence that the cereals on the lower shelves of the grocery stores are brightly colored? Guess who’s at eye level with sugary cereals!) But they’re also full of phytochemicals, which have been found to provide health benefits beyond what essential nutrients can give us.
In “Today’s Dietitian,” the colors are broken down into categories based on their pigment and health benefits. Here’s a quick summary:
Pigment from: anthocyanins
Examples: Plums, blueberries, pomegranates, blackberries, prunes, eggplant (especially the skin)
Pigment from: chlorophyll (These foods are rich in isothiocyanates)
Examples: broccoli, bok choy, cabbage, Brussels sprouts
Pigment from: lutein
Examples: Kiwi, pistachios, avocado, spinach, other leafy greens
Pigment from: lycopene
Examples: tomatoes, guava, watermelon, cranberries, pink grapefruit
Pigment from: beta-cryptoxanthin, beta-carotene, vitamin C
Examples: Carrots, apricots, cantaloupe, mangos, winter squash, pumpkins, sweet potatoes
RECIPE: Rainbow Veggie Pinwheels
Nut allergies withstanding, every kid should be able to find some kind of nut (or seed) they love. Nuts are incredibly nutritious, packed with protein, “good” fats, vitamins and minerals. They also keep well (in school lunches or as snacks they don’t need to be refrigerated).
In addition to choosing between shelled and unshelled, you can purchase them in butter form or make your own at home. The same is true for sunflower seeds.
So, which nuts are the best?
According to “Health” magazine, all nuts are healthy when eaten in moderation and are about equal in calories. The trick is usually to buy them raw or dry roasted.
Pound for pound, your healthiest options are almonds, cashews, walnuts, peanuts and pistachios. The two to avoid: macadamia nuts and pecans.
Sure, buying seasonal fruits and vegetables is usually cheaper and tastier, but “getting seasonal” also applies to having fun with holidays (e.g., Easter, Halloween, Christmas) and themes (e.g., boats, snowmen, flowers, pumpkins).
What about giving your kids a plate of fruits, vegetables, cheese, nuts and pretzels and telling them to design their own edible monster or bug? Or giving them each a spinach wrap, some sliced cheese and thinly sliced pears with some cookie cutters to make their own green Christmas tree sandwiches? Be sure to include some almond butter, honey or peanut butter to serve as the “glue” in their creations.
Seasonal could also mean experimenting with cool treats in the warmer months. Try letting your kids choose their own ingredients for smoothies or popsicles.
Got a rainy spring day? Put out bowls of pretzels, gold fish, yogurt-covered cranberries, raisins, nuts and popcorn and have the kids make their own snack mix for movie time!
RECIPE: Fall Special
Get them growing
Years ago we had a huge garden that could have made me a pretty penny at the Farmer’s Market—had my kids not eaten everything before I could pick it! From tomatoes and peas to carrots and peppers, my kids ate more vegetables that summer than any year before or since! Why? Because they had a hand in growing them.
Seeing your hard work come to fruition is incredibly satisfying at any age, but especially for kids. They had helped plant, label, water, fertilize and compost, and knowing those vegetables were “theirs” made them taste that much better.
We go back to school in mid-August, so the kids were still reaping the rewards of their work in their school lunch and after school snacks. They were so proud to show off their carrots and snap peas to their classmates!
Freezing, pickling and canning also works great to preserve the harvest. There’s the traditional tomato sauce, jelly and pickled beets, but you’d be surprised at the number of things you can pickle and can, freeze or dry for later use!
One of my kids’ favorites? Toasted pumpkin seeds.
RECIPE: Veggie Train
Get them grabbing
Last year, a nationwide study found that families who keep fruit out on their kitchen counter were more likely to have a lower BMI and weigh 13
pounds less than those who didn’t. I actually keep three bowls of fruit out, largely for variety, and also because apples need their own container due to the fact that they’ll ripen other nearby fruits too quickly. I’ve found the kids are more likely to eat fruit when it’s within reach.
I also keep a designated snack cupboard (for crackers, pretzels, nuts and cereal) and a bin in the fridge just for cold snacks. These include things like yogurt, cheese sticks, turkey pepperoni, hardboiled eggs, sliced lean meats and baby carrots. Sometimes I even have small containers of pre-made tuna or chicken salad. I’ve found that just having a stocked, highly visible and accessible bin makes them more likely to grab something healthy—even when I’m not around.
RECIPE: Cucumber “Sushi” Rolls
Get (or be) a role model
Getting kids to eat healthy is nearly impossible if they see you eating junk food. “Do as I say, AND as I do” is the only way to create realistic expectations on healthy snacking.
Of course, just because I love broccoli doesn’t mean my daughter does. (My son is a freak of nature. When he was 7 years old he listed “kale” as his favorite food on a school worksheet.) One trick that worked for me was having my daughter’s uber-unpicky friend over for snacks. The girl would eat any fruit or vegetable I gave her to snack on, which made her a good role model for my daughter. (It worked so well that one night I got up from the dinner table for something and heard my daughter yell, “Mom! He stole my Brussels sprouts!” I’m quite sure that’s the only time in history that phrase has been uttered.)
A few times I made the mistake of assuming my kids wouldn’t like something, only to discover that they loved it at first bite! Refried beans, for example, are packed with protein and fiber, but I thought the consistency would scare them off. Both my kids now love them—even right out of the can.
RECIPE: Homemade Hummus and Pita Chips
Getting your kids to eat healthy snacks is about more than what you put in front of them. After all, you can’t be with them 24/7.
Part of the shift needs to come from conversations about nutrition and how different foods make our bodies and brains feel. Ask your kids to monitor their bodies after they eat something high in sugar. Do they feel a surge of energy but then a sudden crash? Now ask them how they feel after they eat ants on a log (i.e., peanut butter and raisins on celery) or a tuna fish sandwich. Do they have more sustained energy to jump on the trampoline or ride their bike?
I’ve talked to my kids about how addictive sugar is and that I love junk food but have to work hard to only eat small amounts or I crave more. Start your conversation early. I wasn’t sure my kids were old enough when I first started talking about “brain fog” and needing a nap after overeating, but they still repeat things back to me years later!
Getting your kids to eat healthy isn’t hard if you start them early and make it easy. Teaching kids to enjoy nutritious food and the way they feel when they eat healthy are habits they’ll likely continue through adulthood.