It might not be surprising that purchase of snacks like popcorn, pretzels and potato chips have skyrocketed along with the spread of the Coronavirus at the beginning of March, according to NPR. But just as the nation as a whole is trying to flatten the curve of the virus, so too should your family try to reduce the impact of certain unhealthy snacks.
While snacks can be good for kids by providing a much-needed energy boost between meals, over snacking on the wrong foods can wreak havoc on little tummies and behavior. However, if the right foods are offered at the right times, snacks can play an important role in managing kids' hunger, boosting nutrition and giving them something to do during long stretches at home. A well-timed snack can even keep younger children from getting so hungry that they become cranky.
“It is important to set some guidelines for snacking, similar to meals throughout the day, so that kids and adults do not overconsume snacks,” said Lana Chehabeddine, program coordinator for FLIPANY, whose mission is to fight childhood obesity and hunger by focusing on healthy food preparation, food security, physical education and work-site wellness. Since many of the most-offered kids' snacks tend to be of lower nutritional value than meals, it’s important to make sure you’re offering good snack choices.
Snack times offer a great opportunity to increase kids’ fruit and vegetable intake, suggests a 2019 study that found children who eat between meals may be getting fruits and other elements of a healthy diet that they would not otherwise eat. For picky snackers, consider pairing fruits and veggies with dairy products or dairy substitutes (such as grapes and cheese) lean proteins (such as celery and peanut butter), or whole-grain cereals and bread (such as banana sandwich on whole grain bread).
It is much easier to make quick, healthy snacks when you keep a range of healthy foods handy at home, although that may be a challenge with access to some of your regular stores limited during the pandemic. Ideas include different types of raw vegetables and fruit, yogurt dip, hummus, and cheese sticks. “Many nutrient-packed (e.g. vitamins, protein, fiber) foods are wonderful for snacking purposes,” explained Chehabeddine. “This includes a variety of fresh foods—such as sugar snap peas and sweet baby peppers that can be dipped in hummus or fresh salsa—and other foods like a handful of mixed nuts, dried fruits, roasted chickpeas, popcorn, olives, and dried seaweed.
Timing is Key
It's not just about what you offer as a snack — it's also about when, say experts. “Kids have smaller tummies and can’t eat as much as we do per meal, so they have to eat more frequently,” explained Elizabeth Davenport, a dietitian to the New York Times. “A child constantly asking for snacks is likely just growing and hungry.”
Offer planned meals and snacks consistently throughout the day, although expect kids to be looking for even more snacks as they struggle to adjust to so much more time at home. A good rule of thumb is to offer snacks a few hours after one meal ends and about one to two hours before the next meal begins.
“One useful tip for doing so is allowing for one snack in between meals, but if they are unprocessed, healthy snacks (such as fresh fruits and vegetables) they should be allowed as many as they like as long as it doesn’t interfere with their main meals,” said FLIPANY’s Chehabeddine.
Still, be vigilant about how much your kids are taking in. Chehabeddine suggests having your children drink plenty of water to keep them feeling full and snacking less! She also said to put snacks in a bowl or a container, rather than eating them straight out of the package. “It’s hard to know how much you are actually eating. Portion control is key!”
Skip the Junk
Although convenient, the processed snack foods often advertised for children do not have many nutrients and often have a lot of dangerous additives. To make these processed foods taste good, food manufacturers add large doses of sugar which studies repeatedly prove has a dramatic harmful effect on our health, including being linked to health-related diseases such as heart disease, obesity, cancer and diabetes.
“Snacks to avoid include those with very long ingredient lists and ingredients we do not recognize or know how to pronounce,” Chehabeddine said. “Lean towards snacks that list ‘whole-grain’ not ‘enriched flour’ at the top of the ingredient list. Avoid those that list any types of sugar syrups and hydrogenated oils. You want to make sure the snacks you buy are not solely empty calories (high in calories, low in vitamins and nutrients) and have some nutritional value (e.g. vitamins, protein, fiber).”
To keep processed snacks from invading your pantry, have kids take an active role in learning why these aren’t wise snack options. Involve them in their snack decisions by teaching them the importance of reading and learning the ingredients listed on processed foods, which can set them up for good practices their whole lives.