Snacking can be a path to good health—or a path to ever expanding waistlines and health problems. Our food choices make all the difference.
Snacks should ideally be used to supplement regular meals, not to replace them. If we skip or skimp on nutritious meals, we can’t then expect to make up the deficit through snacking, especially when many snack foods tend to be lacking in good nutrition. However, life isn’t always ideal, and so we snack—which is why we need to make our snacks count. It’s far better to eat a healthy snack when we’re hungry than to wait until we’re starving at mealtime and then overeat. Keeping blood sugar steady is extremely important for good physical health, and it also allows us to think more clearly and maintain an even temper. Low blood sugar can trigger irritability, fatigue, headaches, and just generally not feeling very well, which affects our behavior too. Having some healthy snacks on hand—for the commute home, the bus ride after school, or breaks at work, for example—can make a big difference in how we feel, both physically and emotionally.
Kids need snacks too, even if they get regular healthy meals throughout the day. Children’s rapid growth and development mean that they often need to rely on snacks to tide them over from meal to meal. Childhood is a critical time for optimal nutrition as it lays the foundation for good health for the rest of their lives. Choosing nutrient-dense snacks provides kids with steady energy and the nutrition they need to learn and grow.
Choosing healthy foods is important, but it’s just as important to know what not to eat. Kids’ taste buds are easily swayed by the overly sweetened, highly processed snack foods that are marketed to them. Grocery stores purposely place sugary cereals and other “kids’” foods on the lower shelves at the eye level of their young customers. The products are attractive, colorful, and often offer a prize or game. But we as parents are ultimately the ones who make the decision to buy or not to buy, and we can lead our kids towards healthier choices and away from the neon blue drinks and multi-colored snack crackers! The more consistently kids are given healthy choices, the more they’ll adapt to those tastes and enjoy and crave them.
It’s also crucial that we educate our kids so that they are armed with the knowledge they’ll need to make their own health decisions in the future. We can teach them that nature provides the best foods for our bodies and that we should therefore eat foods as close as possible to how they are in nature. If there are ingredients on a label that we can’t pronounce or we don’t recognize as food—don’t eat it! The more we adults educate ourselves about health and nutrition and apply that knowledge in our own lives, the more we can teach our kids—both by our words and by our example. They can then become leaders in the future, setting good examples for and educating their peers and their own children.
The most nutritious snack foods come straight from nature—fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, whole grains, and legumes. Dairy products are also very nourishing and sustaining. Here are some ideas for healthy snacks that are simple, nutritious, and delicious!
- Fresh Fruit
Mother Nature’s perfect snack. Every fruit has a unique flavor and is brimming with antioxidants, phytonutrients, heart-healthy fiber, and a myriad of vitamins and minerals. Usually the deeper the color, the more nutritious – like blueberries, strawberries, blackberries, kiwis, pomegranates, and apricots. Other fruits come in perfect snack “packages,” like bananas, oranges, and tangerines. Grapes and melons are wonderfully juicy. And the humble apple is often ranked as one of the top 10 healthy foods. So pile on the berries, the melons, the tree fruits, and every other kind of fruit you can think of! Since fruits are very low in fat, it is a good idea to combine them with healthy fats for sustained energy. Nuts, seeds, nut butters, and dairy products go well with many fruits. Apples and cheese are a traditional pair. Berries and cream are scrumptious together. Bananas and almond butter, oranges and walnuts, mango and tahini, and grapes and sunflower seeds are some other good combinations. Have fun and let your kids choose their own combinations!
- Fresh Veggies
Low in calories and bursting with vitamins, minerals, fiber, antioxidants, and phytonutrients, vegetables come in a rainbow of colors and a wide array of flavors and textures. The benefits of fresh veggies could fill a whole article, but to name a few, they reduce blood pressure and cholesterol; lower risk for cancer, stroke and heart disease; neutralize free radicals, slow the aging process, boost mood, improve concentration, and give you lots of energy. The fiber in fresh vegetables is filling and improves digestion. Most vegetables are low in fat, so it’s good to combine them with high-fat foods, like hummus, yogurt or sour cream dip, cheese, cream cheese, or nut butters. This makes your veggie snack more sustaining. Kids love celery boats filled with peanut butter or red bell pepper wedges stuffed with cream cheese. Fresh peas in the pod make a highly nutritious and fun snack (I love popping them out of the pod!) combined with cheese or almonds. Let your kids participate in shopping for vegetables and preparing their own snacks, and try a new vegetable from time to time. The more involved they are in their food choices and preparation, the more likely they’ll be to eat well.
- Nuts and Seeds
Nuts and seeds are rich in healthy fats and are therefore among the most sustaining foods we can eat. Research shows that they are consistently associated with lower BMI and better health. Eating a palmful of nuts and seeds with a snack of fruits or vegetables increases satiety and helps to stabilize blood sugar. They lower bad cholesterol, boost good cholesterol, and provide fiber as well as important nutrients, like magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6. Some nuts, such as walnuts, are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids, which are very important for brain development. Nuts and seeds also provide selenium and zinc, helping keep skin and nails healthy and strong. There are so many delicious nuts and seeds to choose from, such as sunflower seeds, pumpkin seeds, almonds, pistachios, cashews, pecans, peanuts, Brazil nuts, macadamia nuts, and hazelnuts. Try eating them fresh out of the shell for fun and the extra fresh taste. Many nuts and seeds are also made into nut butters, like almond butter, cashew butter, and tahini (sesame seed butter). Spread them on crackers, fruits, or raw veggies for a more complete and nourishing snack. You can also make your own “trail mix” by combining your favorite nuts and seeds with raisins or other dried fruits.
- Whole Grain Crackers
Whole grains contain valuable fiber and nutrients and help provide sustained energy. They also reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease, obesity, high blood pressure, and many other diseases. (Read more about the benefits of whole grains here .) Whole grain crackers are readily available in stores and are a quick and convenient choice for a healthy snack. (Just be sure to read the package labels— if the word “whole” is not there, it is not made from whole grains. Also try to avoid added sugars and hydrogenated oils.) Since grains are naturally low in fat, it’s important to add a high fat spread or topping to make your snack more sustaining. Some favorites are hummus, avocado, nut butters, cheese, or cream cheese.
Rich in calcium, protein, and nourishing fats, cheese is a satisfying snack almost every child loves. Combine with fresh fruit, sliced veggies, or whole grains to create a substantial pick-me-up or even a light lunch.
Yogurt is high in protein and rich in calcium. The probiotics found in yogurt have a wide range of benefits, including reducing risk of respiratory infections and protection against asthma, allergies, eczema, and even obesity. Plain yogurt is the healthiest choice since flavored yogurts almost always contain sugar and sometimes artificial flavors and colors. Sweeten it naturally with fruits of your choice, like peaches, mango, banana, or berries. Or add a natural sweetener, like raw honey, maple syrup, or stevia. A sprinkle of seeds or nuts adds nutritious fats and extra flavor.
- Smoothies - Smoothies are a fast and simple way to get healthy foods into your diet that you may not eat on their own. Combine your favorite fruits with milk, nut milk, or yogurt. Add some “super foods” like chia seeds, flax seeds, and greens (like kale, collards, or dandelion greens); and some healthy fats, like flax or coconut oil, nut or seed butters, or avocado. Keep a variety of frozen fruit in your freezer to make preparing smoothies quick and easy. And don’t be shy about making your smoothies green! The nutrients in chlorophyll (which makes plants green) are so valuable to our good health that it’s worth adding leafy greens whenever you can.
- Wai Lana Snacks - Other great snack ideas are Wai Lana’s Gluten-Free Cassava Chips and Wai Lana Fruit & Nut Bars. It can be challenging to eat right, especially when you’re on the go, so these all-natural products are convenient options for tasty and satisfying snacks.