How to make snacking healthy

By Rosie Schwartz, RD on January 31, 2013
Snacking used to have a bad reputation, often leaving those who succumbed to hunger and temptation feeling guilty. But then scientists redeemed snacking’s status. Having a little nosh in between meals seemed to offer a host of health perks for everyone. The secret to successful snacking, though, depends on the menu.

Health benefits

  • For kids with small appetites, meeting their nutrient needs in three meals a day can be a tough task. Snacks can help fill in nutrient gaps. 
  • For kids with large appetites, snacks can reduce overeating at meal time. 
  • Planned snacks can help people whose hectic schedules lead to later meal times. Delaying meals – for kids and adults – can trigger low blood sugar, low energy, and high irritability. 

Salty language

There are still plenty of snack offerings with little nutritional value that are being presented as smart snacking selections. Just take a look at some product claims and you’ll get the gist. Frozen pizza snacks, for example, that tout being baked and with reduced fat still may supply almost 500 mg of sodium in just one serving.

Consider that sodium should be limited to 1,000 mg for children three and under, 1,200 mg for four- to eightyear- olds and 1,500 mg for older kids. Baked or not, getting more than one third of the recommended sodium intake in only one food isn’t wise.

It does appear, though, that kids’ eats are laden with sodium. A recently published study in the journal Pediatrics found that American children between the ages of eight and 18, on average were consuming almost 3,400 mg of sodium a day – more than double the recommendations. As sodium levels climbed, the risk of high blood pressure also rose – even more so in kids who were overweight.

You can bet that here, north of the border, the sodium counts don’t differ all that much, especially when you consider that research has shown that when packaged foods from all over the world are assessed, Canada’s offerings are amongst the highest in sodium.

Check for sodium counts in the Nutrition facts box on prepared snack options such as popcorn, crackers and frozen foods. Try to limit choices to under 250 mg per serving. Popping your own popcorn or having fresh fruit and vegetables as part of a snack makes it easier to keep sodium totals in check.

No more sugar-coating

The same goes for sugary items. In many cases, selections that are packed with sugar are also fat-laden. Muffins may seem like a healthy choice, for example, but they’re so gargantuan that they might as well be a cupcake. Try baking some muffins with your kids and make sure the ingredients are healthy and the muffin size is reasonble. It’s a great way to spend some quality time together, too.

Too much snacking?

If it seems as though your youngster has a bottomless pit for a stomach and can continue to snack endlessly, there are a couple of possible reasons:
  • Skipping meals earlier in the day or eating unbalanced meals that have no or not enough protein-rich options or too few calories. 
  • Snacking too late. For example, yogurt and fruit might be enough to satisfy after school, but if it’s being eaten at 6 pm ahead of a late dinner, chances are it won’t do the trick. 

Hunger games

When tummies rumble, the right snack can take the edge off. Try these quick and healthy ideas:
  • Homemade lower sodium snack mixes containing nuts, whole grain pretzels and cereal 
  • Homemade smoothies 
  • Lower-fat yogurt with fruit and a spoonful of cereal as a crunchy topping 
  • Vegetable sticks and hummus, a yogurt or a light Ranch dip 
  • Vegetable soups – a homemade one or look for a lower-sodium broth with added frozen vegetables 
  • Bananas spread with nut-butter or no-nut spread, rolled in granola 

Rosie Schwartz is a Toronto-based consulting dietitian in private practice and is author of The Enlightened Eater’s Whole Foods Guide (Viking Canada). Join Rosie on her website at rosieschwartz.com for her take on healthy eating.

Originally published in ParentsCanada magazine, December 2012.

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