Why is it that when I walk into a day care snack time, I see kids eating pretzels, goldfish, crackers, or other variety of simple carb loaded with salt and almost void of nutrition? Why, when kids gain the ability to feed themselves, do we swap their pureed veggies, fruits, meat, and grains, for crunchy, salty, refined white flour products in a plastic bag?
Sure, I know that it’s easier. But is it even a conscious choice anymore? Or have we all been lulled into forgetting the wise old adage that we are what we eat?
Feed to nourish, not to fill
Please don’t misunderstand me: I’m all for the occasional treat, and for enjoying food in a relaxed manner. However, I firmly believe that our children should be snacking to nourish, not just to fill their bellies. Snacks should provide protein, vitamins and minerals. To be fair, the bagged crunchy treats do provide vitamins and minerals – they are artificially inserted after processing removes the nutrients which nature provided.
Nature knows best
There are folks who will argue that nutrients are nutrients, whether they occur naturally in your food or are added as part of the processing. I do not agree; I believe it’s incredibly important to obtain nutrients from whole foods, the way nature intended. But that argument is beyond the scope of today’s blog. There is no argument that whole foods contain certain nutrients that are not available in processed foods (the polyphenols in berries is one example).
The importance of protein
Protein performs a variety of vital jobs in our bodies, and therefore must be eaten in adequate amounts throughout the day. Most adults in the US eat too much meat, and therefore too much protein. However, many kids in the US do not get enough protein at a given meal and do not eat protein frequently enough. This is due in part to taste (many kids only like certain protein foods served in particular ways) and in part to what’s offered to them. One of protein’s most important jobs in a child’s life (and the adults who care for that child) is to balance blood sugar, thereby preventing emotional melt-downs. But it’s also important for growth and development of the body and brain, for proper immune system functioning, for clear thinking, and for physical energy, as well as for many other bodily functions.
Make better choices
All this is to say, let’s make better choices when it comes to finger and snack foods for our kids. Let’s call out salty crunchy white flour products for what they are – treats. Let’s take this opportunity to boost immune systems, lower obesity risk, flatten emotional roller coasters, and promote a love of healthy food. And parents, don’t just do this at home – talk to your child care providers about improving food choices at their establishments too.
My top 5 nourishing, non-protein snack foods:
- grapes (watch out for choking in the younger crowd)
- roasted yam bites (this is a recipe I use all the time, however, I don’t cook on aluminum; I use cast iron. Look for more on this in a future blog post.)
- baked oatmeal bites
- baby carrots (steamed if you’re feeding a younger child)
My top 5 protein-rich snack foods:
- roasted chick peas
- cheese – sliced, cubed, or sticks
- cubed deli meat
For a well-rounded, protein-balanced snack, choose at least one from each list to offer at each snack. These foods made my top 5 based on their nutrient density, appeal to kids, ease of prep, and lack of mess when eaten. You’ll notice I’ve left nuts out of the discussion here, as many day cares and schools are nut-free facilities due to allergies. If nuts are available to you, they are an easy, nutrient-dense, protein-rich snack.
I have 3 uses for juice: a young, sick, dehydrated child who might otherwise require an IV for fluid replacement; a constipated child; a mixer for my adult beverage. As far as I’m concerned, it should never be used for anything else. Except maybe as a dessert, but when I’m having dessert I want ooey-gooey chocolate, not juice. There is as much sugar in juice as there is in soda. Although 100% juice has the same nutrients found in the original fruit (as long as they haven’t been processed out), the huge amount of sugar, and the total lack of fiber, make it an unhealthy choice. Kids should drink water, milk, or herbal tea (alternative milks can be low in protein and high in sugar, so be careful with them).
Parents are often concerned about their children overeating. In our world full of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease, it’s an understandable concern. But kids won’t overeat (unless we push them to – see my blog post “Growing Healthy Eaters“). What they will do is eat what we offer them. If we offer them empty calories on a daily basis, they will grow accustomed to eating this way, putting them at risk for innumerable health concerns. If we offer them nutrient-dense food on a daily basis, and reserve empty calories for special occasions, we prevent a myriad of health problems, and foster adventurous eating.
Resources & Recipes
Gluten-free, dairy-free snack ideas – from our very own Dr. Zelfand at Naturopathic Pediatrics.
Parents.com – I disagree with some of their choices, but there are a lot of great creative ideas here
Weelicious.com – more simple carb and sugary recipes than I prefer here, but there are also lots of really nourishing and creative recipes. Also, she’s lowered the sugar content of the sweet treats.
Need more healthy snacking tips?
Check out Super Healthy Kids. Shopping at the Super Healthy Kids site helps support Naturopathic Pediatrics. We love when we find a sister company that promotes healthy eating and whole foods.