Small bites, big benefits

Snacks are a great way to help your child meet their nutritional needs

Snacks can contribute in a healthy way to your child’s diet. While school-age kids tend to snack once or twice a day, toddlers average as many as four daily snacks—a quarter of their calories. So choose snacks that help your child get their daily nutrients, keep them full, and avoid extra trips to the dentist.

Four parts of children’s diets that benefit from extra attention are fruits and vegetables, added sugar, calcium and vitamin D, and whole grains.

Snack time is an opportunity to help meet the daily recommendation of a cup of veggies and a cup of fruit each day. How? You would be surprised by how many kids will eat cucumbers if they are peeled and placed in front of them while they are watching TV or coloring. Many also enjoy dipping raw vegetable slices in low-fat ranch dressing or hummus. Other favorites include celery (ever try Ants on a Log?), frozen peas, canned corn, and sugar snap peas.

When it comes to fruit, whole fruit and low-sugar fruit cups are easy to throw in lunch boxes, and plastic containers are great for taking berries on the go. Be mindful of choking hazards (for example, while in the car) and cut grapes and similar chunky foods in quarters for younger children.

When it comes to added sugar, the average American consumes three times the recommended limit — and it often sneaks in during snack time. This can contribute to childhood obesity. Strive to limit added sugars in your child’s diet to no more than four teaspoons or 16 grams per day. Look for key words in the ingredients such as sweeteners, cane, sugar, and most ingredients ending with “-ose”. Natural sugars are OK.

It is also good to regularly avoid sugary cereals and juices. Water is the best beverage option between meals, and when you do give your child 100-percent juice, dilute it. If you are baking treats for your loved ones, try cutting out up to half of the sugar in the recipe.

Children also need calcium and vitamin D for growing bones. School-age children are advised to have two to three servings per day of dairy, or fortified dairy-free milk alternatives. A cup of milk, two slices of cheese, or a child-sized yogurt each count as a serving and make good snacks. Cheese sticks (or cubes) and yogurt tubes are practical. Though again, check how much sugar is added to flavored yogurts. Try to choose one that has less than 10 grams.

Finally, snack time can help kids get three to five daily servings of whole grains, such as a slice of wheat bread or a cup of whole grain cereal. Good options for snack time include wheat toast, waffle strips, or baked crackers with nut butter. Plain popcorn is also fun. Just fill the bottom of a brown paper bag with kernels, fold the top shut and microwave until it is full. This cuts out the salt and saturated fat found in commercial options.

When it comes to food, the most important thing is to foster a positive relationship with healthy choices. You can model good habits by splitting a plate of veggies and dip with your child after school, or during movie time. If possible, grow vegetables and berries at home. When snack time comes around, just open the back door! 

Amer Al-Nimr, MD is a pediatric gastroenterologist at the Children's Hospital at Dartmouth-Hitchcock. For more information, go to

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