Eat Well to Be Well: The ABCs of after school snacks

“I’m hungry!”

In the coming weeks, school-age children will be saying this phrase a lot as they step through the door coming home from school. After school snacks provide about one-third of a child’s daily calories so this is a perfect opportunity to provide healthy food your child needs to support their growth and activity. Your job as a parent is to understand the importance of snacking and what types of food to offer to meet their nutritional needs. Here is where the ABCs of after-school snacks come in.

Accessibility – It’s natural for your child to come home from school hungry. In some schools, the lunch time may be as early as 11 a.m. (or even earlier!), which means there can be several hours between when they last ate and when they arrive home. Children’s stomachs are small and it’s essential they eat a mid-afternoon snack to tide them over to dinnertime. Whether they go directly home or to a babysitter after school, they need access to nutritious food. Making food easily accessible and ready-to-eat will meets their need for food they want right away. Know what you will serve ahead of time so they won’t have to wait, which makes them more anxious and irritable. For older children, having easy access to healthy options they can serve themselves will be better than if they have to search around for food and end up eating food high in sugar, fat or sodium. Having fresh fruit sitting in a bowl or cut-up vegetables with dip within easy reach will encourage them to more likely make a healthier choice.

Balance – An important key to healthy snacking is providing a balance of food choices your child can enjoy. Maintaining a balance between providing nutritious food and allowing your child to make independent decisions can go a long way in achieving this goal. A way to meet this balance is to offer a wide variety of foods. Mix it up as to what you provide each day for their snack – plan on providing fruit, vegetables, dairy, whole grains and nuts. Also provide a range of different tastes and textures – soft, chewy, crunchy, smooth, hot, cold, sweet, sour and spicy. This keeps the snack choices interesting and enticing. Visit choosemyplate.gov to help you plan a good balance of healthy snack foods to choose from.

Choice – Bottom line, children want to have a say in what they eat after school. Of course you’re not running a restaurant with multiple choices, but having a couple of different options makes it more likely your child will find what they want to eat. It also helps to have your child involved in choosing their snack. When you have healthy, nutritious food on hand, they can make their own decision as to what they want. Older children can be involved in making their own snacks, which they are more likely to eat.

Now that you know the ABCs of after school snacks, let’s take a look at some nutritious snack ideas that your child will look forward to after a day at school and that are easy to prepare.

Healthy snacks for hungry kids:

  • Peanut butter and crackers or peanut butter with vegetables. Peanut butter is a great source of protein and if using vegetables or whole grain crackers, this will add a fiber boost too.
  • Popcorn – air-popped is best but otherwise use minimal oil for regular popped popcorn. Also try mixing popcorn with pretzels, nuts, raisins, dried fruit, or any other nutritious item. In addition to being a whole grain, research has shown popcorn to be a very healthy snack, as it contain antioxidants called polyphenols, which may fight diseases such as cancer and heart disease.
  • 100 percent fruit juice – Juice is a great way to get in vitamin C but do watch the amount your child drinks. Six to eight ounces, at the most, is all they need since it can be high in sugar and calories.
  • Yogurt, cheese, pudding cups or cottage cheese. These dairy foods provide the mineral calcium important for building strong bones.
  • Any fresh fruit or vegetables. The majority of Americans do not eat enough fruits or vegetables so introducing them early in your child’s life will more likely result in them liking them. Produce is packed with various vitamins and minerals needed by children for growth and for boosting their immune system.
  • A whole grain cereal with milk or a cereal bar can be a satisfying snack. Pay close attention to the sugar, fat and fiber contents. Choose cereals and cereal bars with no more than 10 grams of sugar per serving (1 teaspoon of sugar equals 4 grams of sugar), no more than 10 percent of the daily recommended value for total fat, and at least 2 grams of fiber per serving.
  • Hard cooked eggs or a small sandwich made with lean roast beef, turkey or ham. All of these are great protein sources which helps curb hunger for longer periods of time.
  • Oatmeal cookies. Yes, an occasional cookie is okay as long as it’s made with whole grains such as oatmeal or fruit such as raisins.
  • Mini homemade pizzas. Take an English muffin or flat bread, place sliced tomatoes or tomato sauce on top and sprinkle with cheese. Place in the oven set at 350 degrees F until the cheese melts.
  • Trail mix is always a delicious and quick snack to serve. You can buy premade trail mixes or it’s always fun make your own using dried fruit, a blend of nuts, pretzels, cereal and whole grain crackers.
  • Smoothies make a smart choice for hungry school kids. There are literally dozens and dozens of recipes on how to make one and there are so many options of ingredients to make them with. Experiment with different healthy ingredients to create a tasty treat.

The ABCs of after school snacks is as easy as 1-2-3. Just remember accessibility, balance and choice and your child will give you an A+ everytime!

Here are a couple of recipes to get you started on making healthy snacks:

Fruit Smoothie

Make your own variations using different fruits and juices. Serving size – ½ cup.

The following version is using a banana.

  • 1 small frozen banana or other frozen fruit, cut in chunks
  • 1/2 cup plain or vanilla low-fat yogurt
  • 1/4 cup orange juice

Put all ingredients in a blender and whirl until smooth.

Fruity Parfait

You can make other variations using your favorite fruit. Makes 4 servings.

  • 2 cups chopped fresh pineapple or canned pineapple tidbits
  • 1 cup frozen raspberries, thawed
  • 1 cup low-fat vanilla yogurt
  • 1 medium banana, sliced
  • 1/3 cup chopped dates
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds

In four glasses, layer pineapple, raspberries, yogurt, banana and dates. Sprinkle with dates.

Sources: Iowa State University Extension and Outreach; United Healthcare; Kidshealth.


Cheryl_Mussatto_pictureCheryl Mussatto MS, RD, LD, is a registered dietitian who works as an adjunct professor at Allen Community College, where she teaches a course called Basic Nutrition. She is also a certified health and wellness coach. She writes Eat Well to Be Well, a column about health and nutrition, and may be contacted at [email protected].


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