My kids love their snacks just like every other kid and I think that given the choice, they’d choose a snack over a meal any day. I try my best to offer a variety of fruits and vegetables at snack time, which studies show can encourage kids to make healthy choices. Yet I also rely on packaged, processed snacks because they’re convenient and save time. Of course, not all brands are created equal so knowing what to look for—and avoid—is key.
HOW TO PICK HEALTHY SNACKS FOR KIDS
I recently sat down with Frances Largeman-Roth, a Registered Dietitian Nutritionist, a New York Times best-selling author, and a nationally recognized nutrition and wellness expert on the Food Issues podcast to talk about healthy snacks for kids and how to tell the difference between good options and those that are really just junk food at the end of the day. Here are some of the tips we covered.
The first step to choosing healthy snacks for kids is to read labels.
Health claims like all-natural, organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, high in fiber, made with real fruit, and no sugar added seem like good choices but it’s always a good idea to read both the ingredient list and the Nutrition Facts label.
FOCUS ON WHOLE FOODS INGREDIENTS
Processed snacks have their place at the table, but be sure to look for snacks that have as many whole food ingredients as possible like fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds.
Also, avoid snacks that have artificial ingredients, preservatives, and food dyes as well as sugar alcohols such as mannitol, sorbitol, xylitol, and maltitol. Sugar alcohols can lead to bloating, diarrhea, and weight gain when they’re consumed in excess amounts, and some taste even sweeter than sugar, according to this article.
AVOID ADDED SUGARS
According to the American Heart Association, kids should consume less than 25 grams of added sugar a day, but studies show most kids—even babies and toddlers—eat too much.
When sizing up healthy snacks for kids, another thing to keep in mind is that sugar is super-sneaky.
While the label may clearly state that the food contains sugar, the sweet stuff can also hide behind at least 61 different names like fruit juice, cane sugar, sucrose, and high-fructose corn syrup.
Since the ingredients are listed in order of weight, make sure sugar isn’t the first ingredient on the snack you buy.
Instead, look for whole oats or dried fruit, for example.
PRIORITIZE PROTEIN AND FIBER
Most of the snacks kids love (think fish crackers and ‘veggie’ sticks) are low in protein and fiber, which provide energy, stave off hunger, balance blood sugar, and have the nutrition kids need for their growth, development, and overall health.
According to this article from Abbott Nutrition, healthy snacks for kids are those that are between 100 and 200 calories and have between 5 and 10 grams of protein.
Also, choose snacks that have at least 3 grams of fiber from whole food ingredients like nuts and seeds, Largeman-Roth said.
LOOK FOR TOTAL SUGARS AND ADDED SUGARS
As you look for healthy snacks for kids, be sure to read labels for the total amount of sugar as well as the added sugars.
Fortunately, the new Nutrition Facts labels make it easier to figure this out.
Natural sugars are those found in foods like dried fruit but since they also have vitamins, minerals, and fiber, they’re OK to consume.
Added sugars, however, are any type of ingredient that makes food taste sweet.
According to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2015-2020, added sugars include syrups and other caloric sweeteners.
The USDA says added sugars are:
- Anhydrous dextrose
- Brown sugar
- Confectioner’s powdered sugar
- Cane juice
- Corn syrup
- Corn syrup solids
- Crystal dextrose
- Evaporated corn sweetener
- Fruit nectar
- High-fructose corn syrup
- Invert sugar
- Liquid fructose
- Malt syrup
- Maple syrup
- Nectars (e.g., peach or pear nectar)
- Pancake syrup
- Raw sugar
- Sugar cane juice
- White granulated sugar
Also, keep in mind that although ingredients like honey or agave may be natural, once they’re isolated and added to food as a sweetener, they’re actually considered added sugars, Angela Lemond, RDN, told me in this article.