For Karen Ore, the problem is not that kids snack--she thinks snacking is fine, even important, in moderation--but what they may be snacking on.
Ore is one of 23 Montana State University Extension Service nutrition assistants who teach people how to eat well on a tight budget. (Paid for with federal funds from MSU Extension and the Food Stamp program, the program that employs her serves 31 Montana counties.) Like Ore, many of these nutrition assistants teach children in schools and in summer and after-school programs about healthful foods and good eating habits.
They also teach parents about nutrition, including good snacks.
Ore encourages parents to plan snacks just as they plan meals. In fact, she recommends sitting down once a week and planning both meals and snacks and, if appropriate, inviting kids to participate in the planning. Then go to the grocery store with list in hand. "You'll save both money and time," she says, "and you'll be stocking up on healthy snacks. If you know what there is to snack on, then you won't spend time standing in front of the open refrigerator wondering what to eat."
Ore offers another tip: Limit the range of choices. Instead of asking a child, "What do you want for a snack?" ask "Would you rather have yogurt or string cheese?" or "Would you prefer sliced turkey or sliced ham?"
Phyllis Dennee, a nutrition education specialist with MSU Extension, agrees.
"When it comes to kids' nutrition and health, snacks can be a culprit," she says. "Over half the snacks eaten by American children are cookies, desserts, potato chips, salty snacks, candy and gum.
"However, the good news is that parents can help children make healthful snack choices. If parents can make fruits and veggies available during snack time, or have them ready to go in the refrigerator, kids will choose those more often."
In snacks as in sit-down meals, Ore recommends eating the same food your kids do. "Kids tend to do what we do, eat what we eat," she says. "And don't be too restrictive, or you'll lend junk foods a mystique that will just make them more attractive." A candy bar once in a while is perfectly OK, she said--especially if you walk to the store together to buy it, and then share it.
Just as you may wish to make it your business to know what your kids are eating, Ore suggests, you may wish to monitor their exposure to television advertisements for sugary cereals, sodas and other foods. "Discuss with your kids what they're seeing," she says, "and give them age-appropriate information about good nutrition." Ore routinely introduces the Food Pyramid concept even to young children.
Ore's work as a nutrition educator brings her into contact with both parents and children. Some of the parents she talks with say such things as, "Planning snacks just isn't going to work in our family," to which Ore responds, "Take what you can use, incorporate what you can."
Ore often demonstrates, with a canister of sugar and a measuring spoon, how much sugar there is in certain foods, especially sodas and cereals. She shows parents how to make sense of food labels, how to translate the figures into real-world equivalents, in this case teaspoons of sugar.
"It's a very effective exercise," she says. "People are sometimes amazed [at] just how much sugar there is in some foods."
Some healthful children's snacks Karen Ore recommends:
Peanut butter-stuffed celery
Meat or cheese and chopped vegetables wrapped in a tortilla
Yogurt and fruit
Vegetables and bean or cheese dip
Crackers and cheese
Homemade trail mix of cereal, dried fruits and nuts.
When parents are positive role models for snacking, parents and kids alike benefit.
Making healthful snacks available to kids when they are hungry is key to weaning them off sugary and less nutritious alternatives. But be sure that kids are snacking because they're hungry, not thirsty or bored. Parents can help children eat wisely for a lifetime if they help them distinguish real hunger signals from other reasons for wanting to eat.
Be careful about portion size. Start with small, not "supersize," portions.
Although fruit juice is good in moderation, whole fruits or fruit pieces are always a good choice for kids.
Snacks that pack some protein (meat, dairy, nuts, soy) stay with kids longer. A handful of nuts, a cheese stick, or a slice of deli meat--especially if it's paired with a whole grain bread of some kind--will provide kids both satisfaction and important nutrients.
Smart snacks can be quite tasty: Consider banana or apple slices with peanut butter, a fruit smoothie, or veggies with low-fat ranch dressing or cheese dip.
--MSU Extension Service
Contact: Phyllis Dennee (406) 994-5702