“How much depends on their age and physical activity level,” says Samantha Heller, MS, RD, former senior clinical nutritionist at New York University Langone Medical Center’s Outpatient Cardiac Rehabilitation & Prevention Nutrition program and now host of a live nutrition show on Sirius Satellite’s new station DOCTOR Radio. “If they are busy and active, away from the computer and running around outside, kids will actually self-regulate how much they need.”
Three a Day: Stocking Up on Snacks
The American Academy of Pediatrics says that because kids have smaller stomachs, they can’t hold enough food from meals alone. Generally three meals and up to three healthy snacks each day will allow them to meet their nutritional needs. Children who play sports, however, will need heftier snacks and more calories than a child who is less physically active.
Try to plan your kids’ snacks wisely and schedule them at least two hours before mealtime. With this many snacks, kids don’t need to feel full all of the time, so keep the portions small. A bit of hunger between snacks and meals will help them to eat healthier foods when they are offered.
“Give them celery and tofu cream cheese or apple slices with peanut butter,” Heller says. “Make mini zucchini-carrot muffins, offer low-fat string cheese, and have fruit already cut up. Air-popped popcorn isn’t filling, but it’s fun to eat. Just be sure to have healthy food in the house because there’s no reason to have unhealthy junk for snacks,” she says. “Make it a fun, pleasurable part of life.”
When providing snacks for your kids, it’s also important to keep in mind food allergies. If your child is allergic to peanuts, for example, you may want to purchase sunflower butter. “There are a lot of snacks that don’t have wheat, milk, or peanuts,” explains Heller. Talk to an allergist or registered dietitian for some more ideas.
“Food allergists with whom I’ve spoken don’t know why food allergies are on the rise,” says Heller. “But parents need to be very careful when choosing snacks for kids with allergies.” Talk to your kids and their friend’s parents.
In general, junk food once in a while is okay, says Heller. Be careful not to forbid any foods. “It’s very important to talk with your kids about being heathy and how good it is for you,” Heller says. “However, you can make it a fun and motivating thing to do. If a child comes home and says ‘Franny’s mom gave us doughnuts,’ you should say, ‘I’m sure it tastes good, but we don’t have it here because it’s not healthy.’ Once in a while it’s okay. Don’t forbid any foods.” Some research even suggests that parents who are overly restrictive send their child down a road to unhealthy eating, she explains.
Finally, be sure to recruit your kids to participate in the process and set an example by eating a healthy diet yourself. If kids are allowed to make healthy choices and see that you’re doing the same, healthy snacking will be that much more appealing.