Preparing a child’s lunch is an important part of the back-to-school routine, but experts at the USDA/ARS Children’s Nutrition Research Center at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital say that thinking about healthy after-school snacks is also important to consider.
“Having one-to-two healthy snacks in addition to three meals a day is what is typically recommended for school-aged kids,” said Dr. Teresia O’Connor, assistant professor of pediatrics at Baylor and pediatrician at Texas Children’s. “If you’re eating three healthy meals a day, then the snacks should be small, and parents should think of it as an opportunity to get good, healthy nutrition into their child.”
O’Connor recommends picking foods that will help children get the energy they need for the rest of the afternoon while also offering snacks that will help them meet daily nutritional goals. For example, it is recommended that children get at least five fruits and vegetables per day, so a way to achieve this is to offer fruit and vegetable snacks.
“Many kids come home after school having had an early lunch and are pretty hungry, so picking snack foods that will help them feel full, but not over full or stuffed is important. That way they are not ravenous by the time dinner comes around, but hungry enough to eat a healthy meal” said O’Connor.
O’Connor suggests incorporating proteins and whole grains for satiety and also combining fruits and vegetables with proteins and whole grains. See her recommendations here.
What to avoid
She notes that snacks to keep to a minimum are those with added or excess sugar, such as candy, cookies; as well as fried foods, such as chips. These snacks should be the exception, not the rule.
“Everything can be eaten in moderation, but those kinds of foods are the ‘every now and then’ types of food and not the ‘go-to every day’ as an afternoon snack,” she said.
Snacks can be important
O’Connor emphasizes the importance of giving children a healthy snack to be sure they are able to focus on their homework and have the energy to engage in playtime or sports. However, make sure that the snack is healthy and has good nutrients in it instead of a high-calorie snack that does not have many nutrients but adds a lot of fat and sugar.
Timing of snacks
What time children have a snack varies on what your family schedule is like. Snacks should not be eaten less than an hour before dinner, because children may then not be as hungry for dinner. A healthy snack allows them to avoid being extremely hungry for dinner and eating too fast or more than they need.
“Snacks provide that balance so that you go into dinner feeling a little bit hungry but not ravenous,” said O’Connor.
If kids are in an after-school program, check to see if the program offers snacks and talk to program leaders to see if they are healthy. If the snacks are not healthy, talk to the program coordinator to see if you can pack something small and healthy for your child.
If children are involved in after school sports, it can be important for them to have a snack before they spend an hour or two in physical activity after the school day.
“Proteins and whole grains are going to stay with them a lot longer than a candy bar. The kind of nutrients you get from proteins and whole grains give you energy for a much longer sustained time than processed simple sugars,” said O’Connor.
It is also important to think about what your kids are drinking – be sure they are not taking in empty calories and excess sugars from their drinks. Try to avoid sodas, sports drinks and fruit drinks.
Instead, try to incorporate a glass of water or a glass of skim milk.
“I find that a lot of kids don’t get adequate hydration during the day,” said O’Connor. “Try getting your kids used to drinking a glass of water when they get home to make sure they’re keeping their bodies hydrated.”
Many middle school and high school students arrive home before their parents, and O’Connor says parents should be sure they are creating an environment where these teens are more likely to pick healthy snacks rather than unhealthy snacks. This means making sure foods such as fruits, vegetables, whole grain crackers and low-fat yogurt without a lot of sugar are available to them and making sure that the pantry is not full of potato chips, candies and cookies.
“Think ahead of time about how you are setting up your pantry and refrigerator and make the environment at home a healthy one,” she said.
Set the example
There are a few things that parents can do to help their kids make healthier choices. The first is getting them involved in helping you pick healthy snacks at the grocery store – they are more likely to eat the foods if they are able to choose themselves. Also, parents should act as role models for healthy eating. If parents come home and have a glass of water and fruits and vegetables, their children are more likely to follow this.
O’Connor also notes that in some cultures, the after-school meal is the main dinner and says that this still fits into a healthy diet as long as there are still only three meals and one-to-two snacks a day.