Snacks can play a significant role in your child’s overall diet. They are an opportunity to provide additional nutrients and ‘top up’ little tummies between meals. Often children, particularly young children, need these ‘top ups’ due to their small gastric capacity (e.g. little tummies) which can’t handle large meals in the same way that an adults stomach can – but not all snacks are created equal.
The Snack Trap:
Snacks with poor nutritional value which are high in added sugar, added fat, refined carbohydrates and low in other essential nutrients such as protein and fibre, can detract from a nutritious diet by decreasing appetites at meal times, displacing nutrient dense foods like fruits and vegetables, and worst of all, set in motion the dreaded snack trap; that is, the never ending requests for food, the pitter patter of little feet returning to the kitchen every 5 minutes, and the constant barrage of “I’m hungry,” – anyone else relate??
By snacking smart, you can beat this snack trap, save your sanity and improve your child overall nutrient intake – and it’s not as hard as you might think.
Snack Smart tip 1: Offer food at regular, predictable time
Children thrive on routine, it helps them know what to expect and when to expect it, and meal times are no different. Set a schedule and stick with it.
Very young children may need to eat every 2 – 3 hours while for older children it’s appropriate to schedule meals or snacks 3 – 4 hours apart. It is especially important to have this routine established by the time children go to school as they will have to wait for lunch breaks and recess before they can eat.
Setting and sticking to this schedule (military precision not necessary) can help children learn to better identify hunger cues and understand that it is OK to feel hungry. Children will learn that the kitchen is closed between meals and snacks and that they need to wait before eating again. Setting a regular schedule for meals and snacks may also help reduce some fussy food behaviours by encourage children to eat what is given at snack and meal times as they know they will need to wait before something else is offered.
Snack Smart tip 2: Keep up the fluids
Children do not regulate thirst like adults do and can often confuse thirst with hunger so it is important to encourage them to have regular drinks of water throughout the day (another skill that is important to learn before heading off to school). Water should be freely available between meals but other drinks such as milk should be offered at snack or meal times as these too can fill children up in between meals and ultimately displace foods offered at meals. Sugary sweetened drinks like cordial, juice and soft drink are not recommended for children.
Snack Smart tip 3: Find something else to do
It’s not just adults who are guilty of eating when they’re bored - kids do it too. By having plenty of stimulating activities for your child to be involved in, they are far less likely to come looking for food simply out of boredom.
Snack Smart tip 4: Make snacks count
Ok so you’ve stuck to your schedule, offered plenty of water and kept boredom at bay – now it’s time to offer something to eat; this is literally make or break time when it comes to the snack trap.
Snacks should be high fibre, contain some protein and have a low GI to assist aid satiety and keep kids going until the next meal. A good rule of thumb is to choose snacks which contain at least two food groups (grains and cereals; meat and alternatives; milk, cheese and yoghurt; fruit; and vegetables), and always opt for the least processed choices.
My top smart snack ideas:
Fruit and Nuts is a classic winning combo. Try these apple doughnuts (apple slices topped with nut butter and sultanas, seeds, grapes, berries or coconut)
Wholemeal English muffin or grainy toast topped with avocado, cheese or a boiled egg
Yoghurt with muesli, fruit, nuts or seeds
Veggie sticks and hummus
Bliss balls with fruit, nuts, and/or cereal. Try these Banana Bliss balls, Choc date bliss balls, or Hot Cross bliss balls
Whole grain crackers with cheese, tomato, cucumber or tuna
Smoothies with milk, fruit, yoghurt and some sneaky almond meal, oats or wheatbix
And don’t forget kids love to get involved in the kitchen and it’s a great way to teach them to engage with what their eating and appreciate where it came from. Check out My Kitchen Milestones for tips and ideas on how to get kids of different ages involved in the kitchen.
Nikki is a PhD qualified Nutritionist and an expert in children's eating.