After a busy day of learning, kids come home from school — or log off the virtual classroom — with growling stomachs. Children may be inclined to grab the first tasty treats they see. But you can train your kids to fill their bellies with more nutritious choices.
From the preschool days through the teenage years, snack time offers an opportunity to load your kids up with good, nourishing food.
Need some inspiration? Here are a few healthy options for after-school snacking.
Preschoolers have small tummies that need frequent filling. That means they may be clamoring for a snack as soon as you pick them up from school or daycare.
Portable goodies that kids can munch in the car may help prevent after-school meltdowns.
Drinkable snacks are handy for car rides, and they’re an easy way to get a serving of fruit in your kids. Try blending half a banana, half a cup of milk, a teaspoon of peanut butter and a drizzle of honey. Hand a tasty smoothie like this to your preschooler in a lidded straw cup to keep the mess down.
Not a fan of liquid-based snacks in the car? Fill reusable baggies or child-friendly containers with hardier to-go options. Think raisins, homemade trail mix or whole wheat crackers.
For days when you don’t have time to do much prep work, turn to unsweetened fruit and vegetable squeeze pouches. Applesauce is the most common, but you can also find blends with a variety of other produce types, including strawberries, pears and sweet potatoes. You can even buy refillable squeeze pouches to load up with your own homemade purees.
At home, combine crackers or baby carrots with things like hummus or peanut butter. Toddlers and preschoolers are notoriously picky about food. Offering them options with things they already like could help them try new foods.
Little Kid Munchies
Once kids start growing up, your approach to after-school snacks may change. Instead of bringing a low-mess snack along for daycare pickup, you can have a healthy treat waiting on the table when your kindergartner tears through the front door.
But even if this year sees your 6-year-old logging off a computer instead of boarding a bus to end the day, she’s still going to want a snack after school.
Bear in mind that snacks for this age group should contain 175 calories or fewer. Keep portions on the small side.
Early elementary children love fun food, so look for ways to make the snack experience enjoyable. Try:
- Making food whimsical and/or calling it something fun. “Ants on a log,” for instance, tends to be a hit with small children. That’s celery sticks covered in peanut butter and dressed with “ants” in the form of raisins. If your kiddo won’t touch celery, use carrots or even a banana sliced in half instead. The raisins could also be chocolate.
- Using dips to sneak in extra nutrition. Hummus, peanut butter, yogurt and homemade marinara (with blended veggies) all pair well with crunchy things. Crackers, pretzels, whole wheat breads and whole grain tortilla chips make good dipping vehicles. Younger kids typically like dipping, so use that preference to your advantage.
Younger kids also usually like to help make food, so don’t be afraid to get them involved in making their own snacks for the week. They could help mix up some trail mix, decorate the ants-on-a-log treat themselves or help stir the dips you make from scratch.
Big Kid Snacks
As your kids make their way through elementary school, they may start wanting even more control over their snack choices.
Let them dictate the kinds of snacks they want — within reason, of course.
For example, whole-wheat muffins are endlessly customizable. One week, your child might want to add in bananas and chopped walnuts. The next week, you could toss in a few handfuls of plump blueberries. Or try pumpkin muffins with a cinnamon sprinkle.
Muffin mix-ins can also be a smart way to get your kid to sample yams, cranberries or butternut squash for the first time, too.
Vegetable wraps are another versatile dish.
- Start by spreading cream cheese on a whole wheat sandwich wrap.
- Your children can choose an assortment of diced or shredded vegetables to sprinkle over the cheese.
- Ideas include celery, radishes, carrots, broccoli, cauliflower, yellow squash, bell peppers and cucumbers.
- Help your children roll the wrap and cut it into half-inch rounds. Store this snack in the refrigerator to grab by the slice.
Smoothies make good post-school snacks, too, if they’re less reliant on sugary fruits and more focused on protein and better carbs.
Just keep in mind that kids actually need less protein than you might think. Between ages 4 and 9, kids only need 19g of protein a day. A cup of milk, one egg and a single serving of whole wheat pasta already exceeds that amount.
Middle School Grub
You might be tempted to leave your preteens to fend for themselves during snack time. But they need your food guidance even when you’re not there.
In the middle of a snack attack, junior high kids may be tempted to scarf down the first thing they see in the cabinet. To ward off poor choices, make sure your kids know about the many quick and healthy snack items on hand.
Set up a snack station with an assortment of shelf-stable foods:
- Fruit options: oranges, apples, bananas, raisins and applesauce cups
- Easy protein: individual packages of nuts, peanut butter and shelf-stable hummus
- Carbs: whole wheat and/or whole grain crackers, lentil chips and tortilla chips
The cost of prepackaged healthy treats can add up quickly. To trim your food budget, make your own air-popped popcorn and divide it among resealable sandwich bags. The same goes for other snacks. Buy in bulk and bag or store them in individual portions.
You can also designate a drawer or basket in your refrigerator as a similar snack station for cold snacks. Hard-boiled eggs and cheese sticks will help hold your kids over until dinnertime. Guacamole contains healthy fats, and kids can dip whole grain tortilla chips or jicama sticks in it.
During the teen years, boys need about 2,200 calories per day. Girls need about 1,800. Left to their own devices, teens might base their caloric intake on sugary drinks and processed treats.
To encourage better choices, stock your kitchen with easy-to-grab foods that are rich in vitamins, minerals, protein and healthy fats.
Dried beans are cheap and provide both protein and fiber.
Cook a large batch of pinto beans with seasonings, mash the beans and freeze them in single-serving containers. Your teenagers can zap a portion in the microwave for a hearty snack. They’re great straight out of the bowl, but kids will also enjoy them folded in a tortilla with a sprinkle of shredded cheese.
In fact, the freezer is a great place to store all sorts of snack items for teens.
You can prepare homemade munchies in large batches on the weekend so they’ll be ready whenever your kids need an after-school snack. Teens are old enough to take care of defrosting their own slices of zucchini bread or mini quesadillas with cheese, chicken and mushrooms.
Worried that your kids will fill up on snacks before dinner? It’s possible.
But that’s where teaching your kids about portions, feeling full and knowing how to listen to your body on hunger cues comes in. You can control the portions for younger kids and teach them good eating habits as they get older. Teenagers will probably eat more anyway thanks to growth spurts.
If you’re ever worried about the amount or quality of the foods your kids eat, always check in with a pediatrician. You’ll get better, more tailored advice and you can watch out for any signs that there may be a problem.
That said, it’s normal for kids to need extra fuel from time to time. And after-school snacks are a childhood staple. Make the most of this routine by providing healthy treats that contribute to your children’s overall nutrition intake.