How to choose smarter school snacks for kids
When my daughter started primary school in September, I received my first-ever Kindergarten Information Guide. As a mom, I probably should have flipped right to the “curriculum” section. But as a dietitian, I went straight to the “snack policy.” I was hoping that parents would be encouraged to send their kids with nutritious snacks and was relieved to read the following: “Please ensure that you pack a healthy, nut-free snack for your child to bring to school every day, such as fruit, vegetables and crackers. Please do not send pop or juice. You may send water only.”
I had hopeful visions of my daughter sitting with her new-found friends enjoying bowls of fresh strawberries while they sipped water from their reusable bottles. And then it happened. My daughter came home after the second week of school and asked, “Mom, what do ‘Bear Paws’ taste like? All of the kids bring them for a snack.” For those who don’t have kids in kindergarten, “Bear Paws” are individually-wrapped, 200-calorie, nut-free cookies that are very popular with school-aged kids. Treats like cookies certainly have a place in an otherwise healthy diet, but in my opinion, snack time at kindergarten is not that place. So much for the snack policy!
The drawback of children having cookies, cake or other sweets as a mid-day snack is two-fold. First, these treats are made from refined flour and sugar, which don’t provide sustainable energy or any important vitamins to the child’s diet, and maybe detrimental to long-term heart health. Secondly, the calorie count is quite high – probably about 200-400 calories depending on the treat. With childhood obesity looming large, having sweet treats daily is not sound health advice.
Dietitians will explain that a “snack” is a mini-meal. It is made of up foods that you’d normally eat as part of a meal, such as cheese, yoghurt, fruit, vegetables or crackers. These foods are brimming with essential nutrients that little bodies require for normal growth and development. I speak with so many parents who are worried that their picky children may not be getting all of the vitamins and minerals that they need each day. Choosing nutritious snacks can help make up for these deficits. Since many children have small appetites, serving them healthy snacks is a great way to ensure they get some of the nutrients they miss at their main meals. Snacking on a chocolate bar can’t offer the same nutritional benefits that a pear or yogurt can.
In addition to overall health, many studies also indicate that children who eat more vegetables, fruit, whole grains and milk products (and less junk food) have better academic scores. It’s easy to incorporate these healthy foods into kid-friendly snacks. Here are some ideas:
- Whole-grain crackers with cheese
- Any favourite fruits: berries, melon, apples, pears, oranges, peaches and bananas
- Their favourite vegetables: carrots, celery and red pepper sticks, grape tomatoes, baby cucumbers, etc.
- Low-fat yoghurt with whole-grain cereal
- Half a cheese sandwich
- Air-popped popcorn
- Whole grain mini-muffins or granola bars
Snacks vs. treats
Foods such as cookies, chips, cake and candy are treats, not snacks. A treat is something that provides little nutrition to the diet. It’s usually salty, sweet or loaded with fat. When I talk to parents about better snacks and categorize pretzels as a treat, they are always surprised. For years, these crunchy twists made every “better choice” snack list because they were considered the fat-free alternative to potato chips. However, nutritional science now recognizes that salt and refined flour are just as unhealthy as fat was once thought to be. The two main ingredients in pretzels are salt and refined flour. Pretzels are a treat, not a snack.
A treat is defined in the dictionary as “an item that is out of the ordinary and gives great pleasure.” Every family has to set their own guidelines around how often they will enjoy treats. We enjoy treats a few times a week, but snack time at kindergarten is not one of those times.