My 4-and-a-half year old son (that half is important!) is about ready to start his second year of preschool. Like most preschools – and even many elementary and middle schools nowadays – snack time is a key part of the daily routine.
This makes me really happy because snacks are a smart way to fuel active brains and growing bodies. In fact, children’s behavior and academic performance at school may even be improved by making healthy food choices. After all, a hungry brain doesn’t operate very well.
But the nutritional quality of the snack definitely matters. I’ll spare you the geeky details about blood glucose levels and all that jazz because you all KNOW what happens if a kid has a crummy snack. It goes something like this:
Step 1: Kid eats a sugar-packed snack.
Step 2: Kid gets really hyper and can’t sit still or concentrate.
Step 3: Kid’s energy level crashes, s/he starts to whine and s/he still can’t concentrate.
Step 4: Teacher silently wonders why s/he doesn’t get paid more. (Okay, I can’t back this one up by science, but…)
So, in an effort to make sure that my kids’ brains are optimizing at their best (and they don’t become THAT kid in the classroom), I always try to do my best to pack a healthy snack for them. I feel even more (self-imposed) pressure to do so when it’s our turn to provide a snack for the whole classroom, a common practice in many preschools.
How to Pack a Smart Snack
- Incorporate two food groups. I generally try to make sure my kids have a fruit or vegetable at every snack, plus a whole grain or low-fat dairy food. This helps to satisfy their taste buds and provide them with a good variety of nutrients.
- Aim for at least 3 grams of fiber. A serving of most fruits and vegetables is a great way to get fiber in your kids, but I always try to choose whole grains that have at least 3 grams of fiber. This is key to preventing those blood glucose spikes and crashes mentioned above (see steps 1-4) and it helps to keep their “plumbing” regular.
- Limit added sugars to 2 grams or less. Kids (ages 4-8) are supposed to have no more than 12 grams of added sugar all day. Most kids eat this at breakfast. So read the nutritional label and try to minimize the added sugar they get at all meals, including snack time.
- Avoid artificial colors or flavors. The research is inconclusive on artificial colors/flavors and children’s behavior. But some studies have shown that artificial flavors may interfere with kids’ ability to concentrate. There’s really no need for these ingredients in food, so it’s best to avoid them when possible.
Your Smart Snack Cheat Sheet
I realize that the above criteria for a healthy snack is a lot to think about, especially when it’s hard enough to figure out what’s for dinner. So, I’ve developed a cheat sheet for you – featuring 50+ Nut Free Snacks that are easy to keep in your pantry/fridge and pack for school.
Added bonus: these foods aren’t just for kids. They’re great for grown-ups, too!
If these types of snacks are new to your kiddo, start small. You don’t want to completely rock their world by whipping away their old faves and forcing something new on them. Slowly add some of the new foods to their usual snack before their old snacks gradually start to disappear. Eventually your pantry and fridge will be stocked with these healthy items and snack time will be a no-brainer for everyone.
Do you have others to add to the list? Email me or post in the comments. I’ll do my best to keep this list updated as I discover more items in my shopping adventures and through my conversations with all of you.