Snacks can comprise up to one-third of the daily caloric intake for a healthy youngster. Growing children have high energy requirements and small stomachs. Because of this, more than the standard three meals per day are often necessary. Appetites may even change day-to-day depending on growth spurts and periods of high-energy recreation. Snacks help stabilize energy levels until the next meal. Because children’s eating habits are largely determined by age two, you play an important role in teaching good nutrition to young children—one snack at a time!
What Kind of Snacks Are Best?
The best snacks are rich in nutrients, carbohydrates, and protein, and include foods rich in vitamins A and C. The food pyramid recommends that we eat six to 11 servings per day from the bread, cereal, rice, and pasta group. Servings for children will obviously be much smaller than adult-size portions. Try different colors and shapes of pasta and serve whole-grain bread by toasting and cutting it into fun and interesting shapes. Low-sugar, fortified cereals are another healthful snack. Combine several shapes of dry, crunchy cereal with raisins and dried fruit to make a tasty trail mix!
Fruits and vegetables are also essential to a healthful diet and make good snacks. Serving five fruits and vegetables per day is ideal. Use fresh fruit whenever possible or canned fruit packed in water or its own juice—not in sugary syrup. Slice fruits and vegetables into easy-to-eat pieces so that children can serve themselves. To prevent young children from choking, remember to shred or slice fruits and vegetables lengthwise. Grapes and cherries should be sliced in half lengthwise and the pits removed. Add spices (e.g., dill) to plain yogurt or use fruit yogurt as a dipping sauce to make raw vegetables and fruit more appealing.
Milk and other dairy products are essential to a young child’s diet. Children under two years need whole milk, while other children can drink low-fat or skim milk. Try adding pudding or fruited yogurt to the snack list to meet calcium requirements.
Meat, poultry, fish, dried beans, eggs, and nuts are other foods to add to the snack menu. They add essential protein for growth and development, and are good sources of iron. Choose lean meats such as turkey and chicken, and try different bean dips with crackers or baked tortilla chips.
Peanut Butter and Other Food Allergies
For a very small percentage of children, peanut butter allergies can be a problem. Experts estimate that one percent of American children are allergic to peanuts and peanut products. Most allergic reactions are far from fatal; however, some children can have severe, life-threatening reactions. Experts disagree about whether the incidence of peanut allergy is growing, but some suggest that children with a family history of food allergies avoid peanuts until the age of three, when their immune systems are fully developed.
According to the Food Allergy Network, milk is the most common food allergy in children. Eggs, wheat, peanuts, soy, and tree nuts are other common allergens. Although many children grow out of food allergies, allergies to peanuts and tree nuts are usually considered lifelong.
Symptoms can appear within minutes to one hour after consuming the allergen and may include vomiting; diarrhea; cramps; hives; eczema; itching or swelling of the lips, tongue, or mouth; itching or tightness in the throat; difficulty breathing; and wheezing. For more information and helpful resources about food allergies, contact the Food Allergy Network at 10400 Eaton Place, Suite 107, Fairfax, VA 22030-2208 or call 703-691-3179.
Creating the Snack Time Environment
Preschoolers have been referred to as “neophobic” eaters, meaning that they must try foods many times before deciding on food preferences (Sigman-Grant, 1992). Creating the proper snack time environment is an important element of getting young children to try new foods.
Preschoolers must discover their food through careful tasting, smelling, and touching. Provide a pleasant snack time environment which allows children to take the time they need to discover new foods. Add one food item at a time or pair new foods with old favorites. Try adding foods when children are hungry, not tired or grumpy. Be prepared to exercise patience when experimenting with new foods.
For young children, the presentation of the snack can be as important as the food itself. Vary the colors, textures, and consistencies of the snacks you serve. Alternate snack menus with items that are crunchy, creamy, colorful, sweet, and spicy. Keep in mind that young children prefer warm, not hot or cold, foods.
Increase interest in snack time by having children help prepare the snacks. Children are more likely to eat what they have helped create. They also have different ideas of what food combinations taste good together.
Although many adults believe that children will overeat or undereat if they are allowed to select their own portions, research has shown that children will eat only as much as they need (Branen, 1994). Provide a variety of healthful snack choices and let the children decide how much they want to eat. As children’s appetites change day to day, they may need more energy to accommodate growth and development. Do not withhold food as a bribe or punishment. Creating emotional ties to food will disrupt the discovery process and may create eating problems later in life.
Use the period before snack time to orient children to the snack they will be eating. You can increase knowledge about food and nutrition, where foods come from, and what foods should be eaten more often. Consider discussing why certain vegetables and fruits help build a healthy body. Even small comments will help children learn which foods are most healthful.
Don’t underestimate the influence that your example has on the children. Sit with the children and eat what they are eating. Adult and peer attention to different foods can influence the food preferences of young children. For example, picky eaters may change their minds about carrots once they see you enjoying them. Be careful about voicing your likes or dislikes because children will pick up on them. What you say and do may shape the attitudes that the children in your care have about food.
Amy Carr is a writer for the Texas Department of Human Service’s Nutrition Education and Training program.
Branen, L. and Fletcher, J. (1994). Effects of restrictive and self-selected feeding on preschool children’s food intake and waste at snacktime. Journal for Nutrition Education, 27, 273-277.
Sigman-Grant, M. (1992). Feeding preschoolers: Balancing nutritional and developmental needs. Nutrition Today, 27, 13-17.