Your child's healthy growth and development is greatly dependent on their ability to obtain the calories from food needed to fuel their high energy and nutrient needs.

Growing children eat a lot but they can't eat a lot in one sitting because of their smaller stomachs. Three balanced meals just don't cut it, and nutritious snacks must be included as an essential part of your child's daily life. But with the number of calories children consume from snacks steadily increasing over the last 30 years due to the explosion of convenience foods in the supermarket, choosing the right snacks has become a genuine concern for parents.

Alarming rates of childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes only intensify this concern. Your child needs the energy, but just how much do they need and from what sources should they obtain it from?

As with any balanced meal, whole grains are paramount in improving your child's energy levels. Complex carbohydrates are what fuel our bodies and ensure our minds remain alert and functioning throughout the day. Most children already eat plenty of grain products, but too many of those grains are cookies, cakes, and sugary cereals that only provide brief sugar "highs" that do not sustain a child's energy levels for longer periods of time.

Instead, choose grainy snacks such as whole-wheat English muffins, pitas, rice cakes, and granola that also provide more fibre, vitamins, and minerals than refined grains. Other options include:

  • whole-wheat baked tortilla chips and yummy low-fat salsa
  • whole-grain crackers like Triscuit®, or Wasa® served alone or with low-fat cheese, hummus, peanut butter, or low-fat and reduced-sodium deli meat
  • dry, unsweetened whole grain cereals
  • low-fat air popped popcorn seasoned with non-salt spices
  • reduced sodium pretzels

Since most children do not eat their recommended 4 to 8 servings of fruits and vegetables each day, snacks can make up for this loss. Fruits are naturally sweet and children can enjoy the convenience of this on-the-go snack. Vegetables are easy to prepare and can be served raw with dip or low-fat dressing. These delicious snacks are a rich source of vitamins A and C, folate, and fibre. Options include:

  • fresh or canned fruits with no added syrup
  • berry medley
  • fruit salad with colourful diced melons
  • kiwis can be cut in half and served with a spoon
  • carrot sticks
  • broccoli and cauliflower florets
  • green and red pepper strips served with low-fat ranch dip
  • edamame
  • celery sticks served with peanut butter

Dairy foods also make tasty snacks and provide children with much needed protein, vitamins A and D, and calcium. Parents should opt for low-fat or fat-free versions of the bone-protecting foods. Options include:

  • low-fat or fat-free yogurt that are moderate in sugars and high in calcium
  • low-fat cheese slices served alone or with whole grain crackers and fruit
  • low fat cottage cheese served alone or with vegetables and fruit
  • low-fat white or chocolate milk (if storage is not a problem)

Proper muscle development and growth is also an area of concern for young children. Meat and alternatives snacks can provide the protein, B vitamins, iron, and zinc needed to support this stage of crucial development. Some yummy snacks to consider include:

  • nuts and seeds (nuts are high in calories and many children have severe allergies so a hand full is a reasonable serving size for those children that can tolerate them.)
  • hard-boiled eggs
  • lower-fat and reduced-sodium brands of turkey, ham, and roast beef
  • low-fat turkey or chicken pepperoni sticks

Making healthy snacking a part of your children's daily routine can be quick and easy, and the benefits will help prepare them for a healthy adulthood. All snack foods, including potato chips and chocolate bars, can be enjoyed occasionally but involving your children in choosing their snacks will greatly improve the likelihood that they will choose healthier options more often. Encourage your children to make these choices and healthy snacking will become an important part of your child's overall diet.

Brennan Robertson, Hon. B.Sc. (Nutrition)